- File Photos
- From left: Molly Gray, Debbie Ingram, Brenda Siegel and Tim Ashe
Vermont leaders have spent years debating how best to reform the state's law enforcement and prison systems. Calls for action only increased this spring after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. Now, criminal justice issues have followed Vermont politicians onto the campaign trail, where they are a point of contention in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
In interviews with Seven Days, the four candidates shared much common ground on policing as well as criminal and racial justice reforms, but there were several points of tension.
Voters who judge LG candidates on their records will have the easiest time vetting the two who hold office, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden).
Ingram led last year's successful push to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day in Vermont, introduced a proposal to clarify the prohibition of slavery in the Vermont Constitution and proposed a statewide policy for the use of deadly force that is still under consideration.
Activist Brenda Siegel has not held state office but has become a familiar presence in Vermont politics. She spent years advocating on behalf of people in poverty, often in the Statehouse, and has called for prison reforms, tougher laws against hate speech, and opioid policies that emphasize treatment over punishment.
The situation is different for assistant attorney general Molly Gray. On one hand, the years she spent fighting for human rights and her job as a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office may give her insight on issues of race and criminal justice. On the other hand, the public reckoning in the wake of Floyd's death has left some voters suspicious of those who work in the criminal justice system.
Take, for example, the question of whether to reduce spending on the police and reallocate support to social services — the so-called "defund" movement. The city of Burlington, where Gray and Ashe live, recently agreed to reduce the police force by 30 percent through attrition and spend the savings on programs that support people of color. At the Statehouse, Progressive lawmakers have proposed reducing the Vermont State Police budget by at least 20 percent.
Siegel and Ingram say they support the defund movement, though neither put a figure on how much they would take from the state police. They also differ on where any savings should go. Ingram would spend more on mental health agencies and social workers, Siegel on communities most harmed by the criminal justice system.
"We can't just fill a hole in our budget," Siegel said. "We need to be very intentional about where we are putting the funds."
Ashe has said he is skeptical that cutting spending on police departments could work in a small state such as Vermont. Instead, he supports stationing social workers at state police barracks so that officers have the "right tools to keep people safe." He said he has asked Vermont's public safety commissioner to propose a budget in August that would accomplish that.
"I think that requires shifting some of the resources internal to law enforcement towards mental health professionals and social workers and others who know how to de-escalate situations which are really not criminal in their nature," he said.
At the same time, Ashe said he would have no problem using the lieutenant governor's office to be a "thorn in the side" of any "institutional players" who tried to block further reform.
"When you're the lieutenant governor, you have the opportunity to basically be the chief watchdog on the issues that you're most passionate about," Ashe said. "I've not been afraid to speak out against institutional players who wield a lot of influence but aren't getting the job done."
Gray appeared most dubious about the defund movement. She said she, too, supports embedding mental health experts with police response teams and diverting law enforcement funds toward prevention "where we can." But she said she empathizes with the challenges that police officers face every day. Vermont must invest more in training and support if it plans to continue putting officers on the front lines of its mental health crisis, she said.
"We basically asked them to address Vermont's mental health challenges without the tools to be able to do that," Gray said. "We need to think more closely about supporting health and human services and how we look at the needs of our law enforcement officers — and that it's not a fight between [the two needs]."
"Anyone who's not fit to serve as a police officer has to go, absolutely," Gray said. "But we need to not make those who are trying to — or should be trying to — support our communities out to be demons. And that's the challenge I see with 'defund the police.'"
Gray's boss, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, has been criticized by some for allegedly going too easy on police officers who have used deadly force. Asked how well she thought the Attorney General's Office has handled such issues, Gray did not reply directly but repeatedly said, "We can do more, and we can do better."
Gray was more willing to discuss her recent proposal to end Vermont's out-of-state prison contract. She has criticized state leaders for wasting money on "broken systems" and said the millions it costs to house inmates at a private prison in Mississippi would be better spent helping underpaid childcare providers.
Candidates for a variety of Vermont offices have promised to end the practice of sending prisoners out of state, only to find it is easier said than done. That includes Donovan, who made it a campaign pledge in 2016. Still, Gray's comments on the subject ruffled feathers, including her claim on Vermont Public Radio last week that she was the "first candidate" in the race to propose ending the practice.
"I've been talking about it for three or four years," Siegel told Seven Days. "That wasn't just an idea that came out yesterday." She added, "I welcome anyone that wants to come new to the fight. But we have got to recognize the voices that were there before."
Ingram and Ashe, meantime, pushed back on Gray's criticism that it wasn't until the coronavirus pandemic that lawmakers actively sought to decrease the prison population. "It shouldn't have taken COVID-19 for us to be able to do that," Gray told Seven Days. "I don't think we've done enough, and I don't think we've done it quickly enough."
Ingram disagreed with the assessment but said she didn't blame Gray for seeking to "insert" her ideas, given that she has had no involvement in legislative decisions.
Ashe described himself as the lawmaker who has been most "aggressive" in "trying to drive down our inmate population safely."
In 2019, Ashe called on his colleagues to reduce the prison population by 250 inmates within the next several years so Vermont could end its out-of-state contract. He led the push this spring to pass Justice Reinvestment II, a sweeping reform bill signed into law last week by Gov. Phil Scott. It will automatically parole some low-risk offenders who have served their minimum sentences, provide due process rights to those who violate conditions of furlough and reduce the sentences of those with good behavior.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont on Monday celebrated the passage of the bill, calling it a "historic and critically important step" toward reforming Vermont's prison system.
Ashe is touting the bill on the campaign trail as proof of his commitment to criminal justice reform. He told Seven Days that it is one of the "most important pieces of legislation in many years" and should "eliminate completely" the need for out-of-state prisons by 2022.
Gray wasn't impressed. She said the bill was a good initial step but does little to prevent people from ending up in prison in the first place. "As a prosecutor, you open up the case and you look at all the areas oftentimes where the state has failed or we haven't supported the person through their life," she said.
As she criticizes Ashe's record, Gray finds herself deflecting questions about her own. Her 20 months in the Attorney General's Office represent almost a footnote on a 15-year résumé that includes humanitarian and human rights missions abroad. Among her duties: engaging the U.S. government on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross and leading monitoring missions in countries including Nigeria and Iraq.
But while Gray has walked a tightrope so far in the campaign, touting her position in Donovan's office while distancing herself from some of his controversial decisions, her prosecutorial record has not always appeared to align with her personal views.
Case in point: Last year, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George dropped a murder charge against Aita Gurung, who attacked his wife with a meat cleaver in 2017. George concluded he was insane, and Gurung was committed to the care of the mental health system.
Donovan decided to refile charges in June 2019, even though a number of experts had found that Gurung was psychotic when he committed the crime.
At a hearing last September, Gray and a colleague successfully lobbied for Gurung to be moved to a state prison until he could have a mental evaluation. As a result, he was locked up for four months until he was again deemed not competent to stand trial and returned to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. At a hearing in January, his defense attorneys said his prison stay was detrimental to his mental health.
Gray said she is prohibited from discussing the ongoing case. She had little to say when asked how her involvement in the case squared with her views on criminal justice. "I was called in to an arraignment," she said. "I have not been assigned to it subsequently."
She did, however, say that Donovan is "well aware" of her views on criminal justice reform and that she is running for lieutenant governor in part because her time in his office has shown her where Vermont's criminal justice system can be improved.
Among those lessons: "We shouldn't be using our prison system to incarcerate those who need specific services," she said.
All four candidates acknowledge that voter concern about issues of racial and criminal justice could be a factor at the polls. "I've had so many conversations with people from all walks of life in recent weeks talking about what we've done, what we haven't done, what we should do," Ashe said.
At the same time, the candidates — all of whom are white — share the belief that they will need to do more than simply rely on their own individual experiences if they hope to make lasting change.
"As we think about racial injustice, or economic injustice, or social injustice, criminal justice reform," Gray said at a recent debate, "we have to ask ourselves who's at the table when we have these conversations, which voices are not, and step back and elevate the voices of those who are most greatly impacted."