TINMOUTH, Vt. — What first appeared as a goodwill gesture by Attorney General TJ Donovan to the people of Tinmouth quickly turned into a lesson on passing the buck.
At a public forum Sunday, Donovan blamed local law enforcement, prosecutors, pharmaceutical companies and a lack of funding and community involvement for allowing Thomas H. Velde Jr., a man with 41 previous convictions, to re-enter the community and kill local farmer Leo Branchaud.
More than 200 people in the small, southern Vermont town packed the community center to hear Donovan and Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy speak about Vermont’s justice system less than two weeks before the anniversary of Branchaud’s death.
Tinmouth residents say they reported Velde’s reckless driving to state police multiple times after he was seen driving through the community at high speeds, though the state had revoked his license. However, no response was seen from state law enforcement, and Velde eventually struck and killed Branchaud in front of Branchaud’s Tinmouth Farm, fleeing the scene.
While Donovan repeatedly acknowledged the need for harsher sentencing, including jail time for people with a second DUI offense, he refused to endorse such legislation when asked by Branchaud’s widow, Tami Carboni-Branchaud, saying that “this is a hard conversation.”
Kennedy said her office considers DUI charges as serious offenses that endanger the community. Still, under Vermont law, the first two DUI charges are only misdemeanors. State prosecutors continually ask for harsher sentencing, Kennedy said, but “if we ask for jail time we wouldn’t get it.”
On average, a drunk driver will drive 80 times under the influence before their first arrest. That’s 80 times community lives are in danger.
“They don’t go to jail because we’ve decided that’s not how we’re going to spend our money,” Kennedy said of the court system.
According to the Vera Institute for Justice, Vermont spends an average of $49,502 to incarcerate an inmate for one year. That is the fourth highest expense rate in the country. Donovan said Vermont’s price tag for jail time is especially concerning when faced with a 50 percent recidivism rate from offenders within three years.
During discussions about the cost to the state, a mother of a different DUI victim told the state , “What I hear is that you’ve placed a value on my son’s life because the state cannot afford to protect [him].”
While the discontent in the room was palpable, Kennedy said lawmakers hear a multitude of voices from communities. “We just had a DUI four sentencing with one year in jail, and there were protests outside the courthouse,” she said.
Donovan and Kennedy emphasized the role drugs play in crime, saying the state should focus on access to rehabilitation, which is often not available in prison.
“If we’re going to call it a disease … we need to treat it like a disease,” said Donovan said, sparking indignation from many in the audience.
“They choose to put that needle in their arm,” said Jodi Carboni, the victim’s sister. “The state is treating drug addicts as victims rather than criminals.” The hall erupted in applause.
State health care leaders are embracing a new school of thought which treats addiction as a chronic illness, with methadone as prescribed medication.
Though Donovan gave no indication he was prepared to make tangible moves toward reform, three options for addressing the situation became evident during the discussion: petition legislators to introduce bills increasing the legal minimum sentence for DUI and repeat offenders; create uniformity in the judicial college, and remove judges who give light sentences for repeat DUI offenders; and elect leaders who will actively work to address problems of repeat convictions and community endangerment.
It may be too little too late for Tinmouth. During the public comment period, one audience member said in frustration, “We can vote you out, but that doesn’t seem like a harsh enough penalty for not doing your job.”
Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s Rutland area and health care reporter. Contact her at [email protected] or @EmmaBeth9.