Prosecutor Sends Staff to Prison, in a Bid to Counter Their Reflex to Incarcerate
A Q&A with Sarah Fair George, a Vermont prosecutor: "imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year."
Daniel Nichanian | August 14, 2019
This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.
“They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out,” Vermont prosecutor Sarah Fair George says in a Q&A. “So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year.”
Sarah Fair George, the state’s attorney of Chittenden County (home to Burlington) in Vermont, has instructed all staff and prosecutors who work in her office to visit the St. Albans prison, also known as the Northwest State Correctional Facility. “Most prosecutors have never stepped foot in the buildings that they sentence people to spend years in,” she wrote on Twitter. “That needs to change.”
I talked to George on Wednesday about her initiative, and how it could change practices in her office. She said prosecutors often treat prison time “nonchalantly,” as something abstract, and get in the habit of “just throwing out numbers.” “We say six months or two years, and don’t really have to think about what it means for the person,” she explained.
“It’s important to stand in that space and see it for yourself, and feel it for yourself,” she added. “My hope is that people recognize that six months is a long time to spend in jail. Maybe thirty days can be enough time, maybe no jail. Just being more cognizant of the space you’re sending people to when you put an arbitrary number on an offer sheet.”
George said this perspective should fuel shorter sentences, but also restrain prosecutors from seeking incarceration in the first place. “They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out,” she said of staff members who have already visited St. Albans as part of her initiative. “So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year, and how this impacts them as a community member when they get back out. Is there a way that we can avoid that entirely, and not risk them coming out a more violent person or with some type of trauma having been in jail? Can we find another way?”
Her comments flip the typical way opponents of criminal justice reform react to cases of recidivism to argue that people were not treated harshly enough. Instead she suggested that some instances of recidivism should force prosecutors to confront the failures of incarceration. “That hasn’t worked, that person is back. Maybe we need to find another way to address this particular person,” she said.
I also asked George, who has implemented programs to divert people from prison, how lawmakers could further decrease reliance on incarceration. She endorsed a proposal to eliminate de facto life without parole sentences, which would be a national first. She also told me that she plans to work for incarcerated people to have better access to ballots. “Although we are proud of ourselves for saying that inmates can vote,” she said, “I don’t think we do enough to make sure that they do.”
George’s announcement comes a month after the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums called on lawmakers to visit a carceral facility to see how people are detained.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You announced that you have instructed prosecutors in your office to visit a prison in the next month. What is the impetus for this, and what insights do you wish them to glean?
For me, it has gone back to my own experience having been in some of these prisons. It has shaped a lot of my reform policies and how I approach prosecution in general. When I was in grad school, I went to multiple prisons and was on the mental health wards at those prisons, which were in some cases pretty appalling. Then, when I was at the public defender’s office, I went to several prisons and met with clients and heard the stories of either how they were treated in jail or the conditions of jail, solitary confinement, stuff like that. I came into being a prosecutor with that background, and with that idea of what some of those prisons are like.
I have always thought it is important for people to understand what probation does, and what some of our community partners do, and that’s always been stressed. But it’s never been stressed that they should also fully understand what prison means, and what a jail sentence means for these individuals.
As prosecutors, we get very comfortable with just throwing out numbers as an amount of time. We say six months or two years, and don’t really have to think about what it means for the person, that six months for one person could be detrimental to their entire lives.
What are you thinking of when you say it’s important to understand what prison means for individuals? What it is that you think people in your office should have to witness?
Literally just seeing the facility, and understanding literally where they’re sending people. But also being in one of those cells and sitting on the bed in a cell and seeing how small that space is, and seeing a solitary confinement room and seeing how claustrophobic you get in five minutes in that room. Hearing those sounds in the jail of those doors closing, and how cold and harsh all of those sounds are. Seeing inmates in that environment. In Vermont, there is this idea that jail isn’t that bad, and in some sense we’re very lucky, but that’s a lot easier to say on the outside. You spend an hour and a half in the jail and you find yourself relieved to come out. You know you were always coming out, but you have that experience and you think, “Okay, maybe that TV and that good food is not as important as I thought it was when I just lost my freedom for an hour and a half, knowing full well I’ll be coming out and I’m still relieved.”
As a prosecutor, the only time I’ve been to a jail is for a deposition of an inmate, or an inmate who wants to do a proffer. Those meetings are very structured, they’re in a space right inside the jail, so you’re not going very far. There’s really nobody else around. That doesn’t count for me, that’s a very easy way to say you’ve been in a jail without actually being in a facility. I think it’s important to really stand in that space and see it for yourself, and feel it for yourself.
How exactly do you think prosecutors should take these things into account in the course of their work? At what stages of their discretion should this weigh in?
It may not start necessarily with the charging decisions, but I think in some cases it could. If you know for example that this person’s parole could be revoked and they may go back to jail, or you know that they might be held in bond or some other violation, then maybe it does charge at the charging decision. But at the very least, I think that when you’re giving an offer on a case and you nonchalantly say six months as if that’s not a lot of time, my hope is that people recognize that six months is a long time to spend in jail. Maybe thirty days is enough time, maybe no jail. Just being more cognizant of the space you’re sending people to when you put an arbitrary number on an offer sheet.
But also understanding where people are coming from. Somebody may have a long record, and that record has led to incarcerative sentences several times in their history—maybe you can have a better understanding of why they are in the place that they’re in, having spent all that time in jail. Maybe doing it again isn’t going to do them hasn’t favors. That hasn’t worked, that person is back. Maybe we need to find another way to address this particular person.
In the past, you have talked of promoting law enforcement responses that keep individuals in their communities, rather than “taking them out of the community and putting them in an incredibly violent and dangerous space, for however long.” How does this new initiative connect to the other policies you are putting in place to cub incarceration?
Prosecutors recognizing that this place that they’re sending people is a real place, and it is not a nice place, and it’s not a good space. They spent an hour and a half there and were relieved to get out. So let’s imagine how this might impact somebody who is there for six months or a year, and how this impacts them as a community member when they get back out. Is there a way that we can avoid that entirely, and not risk them coming out a more violent person, or with some type of trauma having been in jail? Can we find another way?
I think there are very few law enforcement officers who have really spent any time in jails. Of course, they’re taking them to and from, but our sheriffs actually do a lot of our transport. I think it would be a good idea for law enforcement who have spent any time in jail, to see that and ask how is this actually helping our community for somebody to be in this space for some amount of time? If we start having less sentences on these cases, not to generalize all law enforcement, but they may start thinking, “Oh, he only got 30 days, when in the past we would have done six months.” We need to all be on that same page that thirty days is a long time for somebody to be held in jail, and it’s not because we’re going easy on them, it’s because we recognize that no more than that is necessary.
There are legislative proposals in Vermont to scale back the length of long prison terms. One bill filed this year would have eliminated life without parole sentences, and ensured that anyone is eligible for parole after 25 years. Is that a reform that you would support, and what other measures do you think could curb excessive sentences?
I do support it. I worked with the individuals who submitted that bill, and am still hopeful that it will get more traction in the next session. I think it’s certainly a great start. It’s not a huge number we’re talking about. But I think the conversation leads to, who are the people who are serving life without parole, and is that really necessary.
Our bail statute has recently changed. That has eliminated a significant amount of people serving jail terms pre-conviction, which has lowered our incarceration rate, which is really fantastic. I support that as well. We have some legislation going about our habitual offender statutes and using that less in more specific circumstances, that should keep more people out of jail.
My colleague Vaidya Gullapalli wrote last month that officials visiting jails or prisons can only go so far, as they may see a curated version that does not capture the experiences of people detained there. How will your office also ensure to incorporate voices of people impacted by the criminal legal system in your work?
I struggle with that. Half of the staff went yesterday, and half of the staff is going next month. I was speaking with all of them, I asked did you feel like that experience was fake, did you feel like you didn’t see things that you wanted to. Most of the attorneys felt like they got a good enough impression, but they didn’t see a solitary confinement cell. They didn’t actually go into one. That was something that was disappointing to me, something I want to work on for the next one. I don’t know how to get around that. Obviously jails have the policies and procedures in place for people visiting the jail that they have to follow, so what do you do? Getting people in there in whatever way that the Department of Corrections will let us in is my first step.
For me, the next step is something that I try to do when I’m in court. If somebody has spent some time in jail, I’ll ask their attorney, can I talk to your client for a few minutes? I’ll ask them what was your experience like, which jail were you in, how did they treat you, what did they do well, what could they work on? I also do that on Twitter. There’s a couple of people who are out of jail now but I know are vocal about their how they were treated in the Department of Corrections. I’ve had conversations with them, I’ve called them, I’ve talked to them. I’m trying to find ways because I fully acknowledge that us going on a two hour, three-hour tour at DOC is going to be what DOC wants us to see. And I don’t know if that’s their fault either. So doing that, plus talking to people and hearing their experiences is the best we can do right now.
On solitary confinement, the prison we’ve been talking about was recently hit by a lawsuit this year over the death of a man held in solitary confinement. What can your office do about potential abuses or complaints regarding detention conditions in jail?
The county I’m in only has only one jail, and it’s an-all female-only prison. We do handle any allegation that come from that. We have prosecuted several guards from the past for sexual assault in that facility. Other than through the media, I don’t know about other facilities because they don’t come from my office.
I think that the Department of Corrections has a lot of work to do to have some of their own safeguards in place that don’t require inmates to even report things—more video that is being fed to some other facility—so there isn’t a requirement on an inmate who is already in a very vulnerable position to have to tell on a guard who is in charge of their safety. I don’t know how as prosecutors we can facilitate it because we don’t know about it until it’s already happened, but it’s certainly a good question. I think there needs to be more community oversight in general on all of thee facilities, and more community members or boards that are allowed to just drop in randomly and talk to inmates, and what they say is protected.
Vermont is one of the two states where people who are incarcerated have the right to vote. That resonates with what you are saying about the importance of the perspective of those affected by the system. My question is whether you support that, but also how you think Vermont’s system of universal enfranchisement shapes conditions in prisons, and what would you say to other states that may be considering a move like this?
I absolutely support it, I am very proud of Vermont for doing that, and I think every state should allow them to vote. From my perspective, in Vermont and I think nationally, a vast majority of people who are incarcerated are ultimately released. They are still a community member, and they should still have a say in the way their community is run, whether they’re in jail or not.
When I was just elected in 2018, I asked a lot of people who had been incarcerated whether or not they voted while they were in, and a lot of them either didn’t know that they could, or tried and weren’t able to get an absentee ballot as easily as I think they should have been. So I talked to the Secretary of State about how, in the 2020 elections, we’re going to try to find some better ways that inmates can get easy access to absentee ballots to actually be able to vote. Although we are proud of ourselves for saying that inmates can vote, I don’t think we do enough to make sure that they do and that they actually can in practice and not just in theory.
I don’t have an election in 2020, I have a four-year term, so I’m hoping to spend my get out the vote on the inmate population in Vermont. There are a lot of inmates who don’t recognize that they haven’t lost their ability to vote, so we have some work to do, and that education is going in these facilities around election day. You know, of all the governor’s races we’ve had, I can’t recall a governor ever visiting a jail and speaking to those individuals. That’s a place where we could really work on, making sure that they know what their rights are, and making sure that their leaders do care and want them to vote.
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