Are women offenders getting raw deal from Vermont courts?
WINDSOR — An advocacy group is concerned that women behind bars in Vermont may be receiving longer sentences than men for the same crime.
Women Evolving, a group of about 50 female business owners, legislators, lawyers, corrections employees, community members and inmates are looking at the issue. Sen. John Campbell, D-Quechee, has been meeting with the group since the beginning of summer.
"To be quite honest, I was expecting something completely different," he said. "I met a lot of nice women who were very articulate about voicing their concerns regarding the criminal justice system. A few women pointed out that they felt they had received longer sentences in relation to their crime than men who had committed the same or similar crimes."
Campbell said many of the women inmates he had met had substance abuse issues and were incarcerated for criminal activity related to that problem, such as passing bad checks, using bad credit cards or embezzlement.
The disparity in sentencing between men and women appears to be accurate, he said.
A Washington County sheriff embezzled $25,000 to $30,000 about two years ago, Campbell said, and was sentenced to probation. A woman from the same county who embezzled $120,000 to $130,000 from a business received a sentence of three to 10 years, he said.
Campbell said he thought the man's crime was worse, although he embezzled less money, because he had the public trust.
Campbell said he spoke to prosecutors, public defenders and other court personnel about sentencing disparities.
"A common theme I hear is that a lot of times the women have been given second, third and fourth chances previously," he said. "When they finally do get sentenced, the court looks and says we have given them three or four chances and they blew them."
A man committing the same offense likely didn't have the previous charges against him, he said.
Campbell said he plans to check with the Governor's Commission on Women to determine whether a disparity in sentencing does exist.
"I think it's a serious issue that has to be looked into," he said. "If we do find that a disparity does exist, it will be addressed."
If a disparity is found, Campbell said he wants to get the court, state's attorneys and the defender general's office together to discuss ways to make sentencing more uniform.
An official from the Governor's Commission on Women could not be reached for comment.
Campbell said that some counties seek stiffer penalties, on average, than other counties, and some state's attorneys are tougher than others.
In the upcoming legislative session, Campbell said that health care will be the "number one" issue, followed by the Department of Corrections.
"Currently the (state) budget for the Department of Corrections is more than the budget for higher education," he said.
Breaking the cycle
Many female inmates probably have a mental health problem from depression or anxiety, Campbell said, and they deal with it by abusing drugs or alcohol.
Until last year, the state dealt with substance abuse and mental health issues as separate problems, he said.
"We were treating one without the other, not breaking the cycle," Campbell said. "Thousands and thousands of dollars were going down the tubes because we were not dealing effectively with the actual co-occurring disorder."
Now the state has two sites, one in Chittenden County and one in Windham County, that deal with both issues at once.
Campbell said one inmate at the Windsor State Prison who attends the Women Evolving group had an alcohol problem and received four to 10 years for vehicular manslaughter.
"The prosecutor didn't think she had enough remorse," he said.
Elizabeth Baker was on her way to pick up a puppy and hit a man on a bicycle, Campbell said, but she did not think she had killed him.
"Police said she was more concerned about the dog than the man who died," he said. "How much time does a person have to do for society to say we've taught them a lesson? A good number of the public expect that when people are in prison, they are not there solely for punitive reasons, but to be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, that's not what always happens because of funding or availability of individual programming."
Campbell said that in many cases, programs for inmates are not offered until they are close to their release date. For example, if programs for sex offenders are provided at the beginning of a person's sentence, they may have no other programming for years before their release.
That is why many rehabilitation programs are not offered until just prior to their exit, he said, because they will have more effect then. This is likely the case for both male and female inmates, he said.
Baker, 38, said that between her accident in August 2002 and her sentencing in April 2003, she voluntarily spent 28 days in a treatment center in New York state, was an outpatient at another institution, attended church and went to Alcoholics Anonymous. But since her sentencing, she has not received any treatment.
"My sentence was strictly punitive," Baker said. "No programming."
'I was just a mom'
Another inmate, Diana Mayo, 48, said the jail time that Baker was required to serve was seven times longer than four similar cases in the past year.
"This is the longest jail sentence in Vermont history for an accident-related, DUI-related fatality, for a first-time offender," Mayo said. "She had no previous record. This was an accident."
Baker pleaded no contest to the DUI fatality charge and careless and negligent operation relating to the accident in Chittenden County. She said she did not know the man on the bicycle had died until she had already checked herself into a rehabilitation center.
He was well known, she said, was a volunteer coach and teacher, and was running for state representative. Baker said that she might have received a longer sentence than men for the fatality both because he was such a popular man and because she was a woman.
"My being a parent was not valued," she said. "The man I hit was well known and respected. In court, I was just a mom and he was a great guy."
Previously a Girl Scout leader, Baker was also involved with soccer and school programs until the accident. She has two daughters, 9 and 10, and a son, 5.
"My kids were my life," she said.
She said she had suffered post-partum depression after her third child was born. It had gone undiagnosed for a few years, she said, and she had begun taking medication at her doctor's advice.
"My life became pretty bleak," she said. "I medicated myself with alcohol."
Baker mentioned the case of Jeffrey Parker, who was sentenced last month to serve five to 15 years, all suspended except one year, for killing his best friend while driving drunk. The judge in Rutland District Court recommended that Parker serve time at a prison work camp, which would allow him to be released after serving about six months.
"I took it personally," Baker said, when she learned of his sentence. "It was a huge slap in the face."
In July 2003, a Manchester pediatrician was ordered to complete 75 hours of community service after he pleaded no contest to charges of negligent operation of a motor vehicle in connection with the death of an antique dealer from Newfane. Dr. James Most had been charged with drunken driving with death resulting after an accident on Sept. 22, 2002, when he was returning from a New England Patriots football game.
Baker said she originally did not question her sentence. But recently, she has heard of many cases similar to hers in which the defendant received much less time.
"It hurts my feelings to think that I was singled out," she said. "I have to do four years in jail, with no good time or any time off my sentence. … I am told by many people that they are very shocked at my sentence, which leads me to believe it's not usual."
So far, Baker has served 19 months in prison, a little less than half of her sentence. She sees her children and husband twice a month, but she telephones them twice every day.
"It's important to me to stay in their lives as much as possible," she said.
According to Diana Miles, a correctional service specialist and caseworker at the Windsor State Prison, Baker was told at the time of her sentencing that she was being used as an example.
"Since then, no one with similar charges has received a long sentence like her," she said. "Liz has made history."
Baker said people joke that she should be the poster child for intolerance of drunken driving.
She has not appealed her case.
"What's done is done," she said. "I'm hoping that by telling my story, the brutality of the facts of the accident and the sentencing will show people the devastation that can occur from drunk driving."
Alternative to jail
Mayo said Baker's story illustrated several issues now being addressed by Women Evolving.
First, there was a disparity in her sentencing, she said. Second, because of the nature of her sentence, she cannot get time off for good behavior or any other action.
The third and most important issue is called ATI, or alternative to incarceration, Mayo said.
"Liz would be a model candidate, as a nonviolent, no risk person," she said.
Under the supervision of the Department of Corrections, Baker could serve time while living in the community, Mayo said, which would allow her to continue to raise her children and productively contribute to community service related efforts. It also would be a savings for taxpayers, she said.
Currently, 97 women are serving time at Windsor, which has a capacity of 100 inmates. About 45 women are housed at the Dale facility in Waterbury.
The Women Evolving group plans to ask the Legislature for help after Jan. 1. Mayo said they would probably present a "handful of issues" and ask lawmakers to focus on a few of them.
Mayo was in prison for more than seven months for drunken driving and was scheduled to be released on furlough on Nov. 23.
A community member of Women Evolving, Jean Lathrop, said the group is trying to find other ways of dealing with issues that send people to jail.
"Is jail the best way to prepare them to be productive safe members of our community?" she asked.
Disputing the premise
John Perry, director of planning at the Vermont Department of Corrections, said he does not think women receive longer sentences than men for the same crime.
"Women who get incarcerated, get incarcerated for less serious crimes than men do," he said. "It's not a sentencing disparity. It's a disposition disparity."
Only 7 percent of the people in prison in Vermont are women — 131 compared to 1,849 men. But Perry said women represent about 25 percent of the people coming into corrections for the first time.
"But women tend not to commit the more serious violent crimes," he said. "So the women who are incarcerated, there are 131 of them, tend to be incarcerated for less serious crimes than the men who are incarcerated."
Perry said the sentences for the same kind of crime are not longer for women.
"Women seem to be incarcerated not for the protection of the public but for the protection of the women," he said. "Many of the women have serious histories of substances abuse, mental health, trauma, and physical and psychological abuse."
Some women's lives are so disorganized and their needs are so great, he said, that the criminal justice system seems to be the only place to get them stabilized.
Perry said it was critical for the state to create more treatment alternatives.
"It makes very little sense to place a woman, who has a serious heroin addition problem, in jail for possession of stolen property for nine months and expect her to come out having cured herself of heroin addiction," he said. "In the meantime, she's lost her children, her job and much of her chance of success in the community."
In Bradford the state has created Valley Vista, the first major residential drug treatment program center, to address some of the needs of some women in prison.
"The courts have no other recourse than prison when a woman presents herself to the court with an array of problems and a history of a need for treatment," Perry said. "Obviously there will be occasional disparities."
Sentences for women often are not punitive but therapeutic, he said.
"Nobody knows what else to do with them," he said. "Until recently, there were very few treatment alternatives."
He said treatment alternatives should be expanded.
"It makes very little sense to take a woman who is a heroin addict with two children and place her in jail because she wrote 15 bad checks," he said. "The care and custody of her children is the higher order issue. What is needed is the treatment for her heroin addition and support for her children. Prison is the wrong place to provide the treatment that they need."
Perry said the length of the woman's sentence is not the real issue, but whether they must serve it behind bars.
If women serve their sentences at home on probation, he said, they could get appropriate treatment, as well as provide care for their children.
"The answer is to deal with substance abuse, particularly heroin, and also alcohol and cocaine," he said. "You don't cure drug abuse with punishment. You cure it with treatment. I don't say that treatment works all the time. It's more likely to work than locking them up."
Different disparity seen
Robert Sand, Windsor County state's attorney, said that he is aware of variations in sentencing from county to county but does not see a disparity in sentencing between men and women for the same crime.
Vermont uses indeterminate sentencing, he said. The Legislature sets a statutory ceiling or cap for the crime and the judge can issue sentences up to that or cap.
However, there is no guidance for the judge about what sentence under that cap is fair or appropriate, Sand said.
"One of the beauties of the Vermont criminal justice system is that we fashion individual sentences for individual offenders," he said. "One of the downsides of that is that we have disparate sentencing practices. So the county in which you commit your offense has some bearing on what the ultimate outcome will be. I have come to believe that maybe that is not as fair a system as we should have."
Sand said it would be appropriate to establish a sentencing commission to set guidelines for sentences. Former prosecutors, former defense attorneys, judges, legislators and others familiar with the criminal justice system could constitute the commission.
Although judges would have a guideline for each sentence, they would still have the ability to impose a harsher or less restrictive sentence, Sand said.
"The area that has the most disparate sentencing practices is in the area of sexual offenses," he said. "Some people get fully suspended sentences, others get short jail terms, and others extremely long jail sentences."
He said that sentencing practices in sex cases vary widely from county to county, based on the prosecutor, the defense attorney and judge.
"I'm not blaming anyone for the disparities," he said. "I'm just acknowledging that they exist. I think it is reasonable now for us to take a statewide look at sentencing practices, not to become perfectly uniform but develop a higher level of consistency."
Sand said that, speaking from his personal experience, he would dispute the idea that women receive longer sentences than men in Windsor County.
"I'd like to think they get corresponding sentences," he said. "If I was being completely candid, I might say they are less likely to be incarcerated than men."
Contact Carolyn Handy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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