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Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark.

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Sheriff looks beyond failed Justice Center

Clark says he’ll continue to pursue many elements of the controversial Liberty Mill Justice Center project, though the detention-center aspect is dead

NEWFANE—Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark took an extended, public drubbing for his now-defunct Liberty Mill Justice Center proposal, and he admits the experience left him “bloodied a little bit.”

But Clark is unbowed in his quest for new programs that he believes could change Vermont’s criminal justice system and bolster local law enforcement.

In fact, he insists that nearly all aspects of the Liberty Mill plan — aside from the controversial detention center — remain feasible in the not-so-distant future.

Creating transitional housing and more-consistent case management for criminal offenders are two primary goals that could have statewide impact. On a local level, Clark also is continuing to pursue a regional dispatch center, a police-training facility, and a new headquarters for his department.

“Now, our approach is, we’re going to focus on the programming, not necessarily a specific location,” Clark said. “We’re already looking at, how do we make this work without the funding that would have come through the detention aspects?”

Clark is not concerned that he or his department will see any lasting effects from the Justice Center mess.

“Every four years, they have that opportunity to elect a new sheriff,” Clark said. “If I only worried about getting re-elected, I would never do anything.”

Immediate, intense opposition

Clark last year made a public pitch for creating the sprawling, $22 million Liberty Mill Justice Center inside the former Chemco building in Bellows Falls.

He faced immediate, intense opposition. While Liberty Mill would have included a variety of services, the prospect of state and federal detainees being housed in the village attracted the most attention.

Clark eventually ended his pursuit of the Chemco building, citing renovation and cost concerns. The sheriff announced in early March that he was considering placing the Justice Center at a site near Exit 6 off Interstate 91 in Rockingham, but that effort ended a few weeks later when U.S. Marshals Service withdrew its support for the project.

Clark said his biggest regret is pushing Liberty Mill into the spotlight too soon when word of his preliminary plans leaked. He said the public’s first impressions were of a rumored “megaprison” — something he never intended to build.

“I wish now I’d just held off to make sure we had a more concrete plan, more things in place — spent more time up front really educating and working with the community,” Clark said. “We didn’t do that. We were always playing catch-up.”

Clark has his hands full running a department that provides contracted law enforcement all over Windham County, including security and prisoner-transport services for the courts. In the wake of Liberty Mill’s failure, he acknowledges wondering whether he should drop the project entirely.

But he contends he is too invested in the idea of justice reform to walk away.

“I know we need to do this,” Clark said. “Someone needs to be first, and someone has to be pushing it.”

High costs of incarceration, recidivism

The sheriff is not alone in reassessing the costs — both financial and social — of criminal justice in Vermont.

Asked about her justice-system concerns, state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, came up with a long list including mental health and addiction problems, parole issues for elderly or ill prisoners, a lack of housing for inmates who could be released, and the fact that Vermont continues to send offenders out of state.

Balint serves on the Senate Committee on Institutions, which has jurisdiction over the state Department of Corrections. She said she is among those working with committee chairwoman Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard, and the nonprofit Crime Research Group to form a “working group” to study the problem in depth.

The idea is to “look at these issues and how they will play out over the next 10 to 20 years as the Vermont prison population continues to age and as our buildings continue to age,” Balint said. “We hope to have some language included in the capital bill that will address the formation of this working group.”

The problems of incarceration costs and recidivism weigh heavily on Clark, who has spent 25 years in law enforcement. He says many of those who end up in the prison system aren’t there only because of a criminal act.

“They’re there because of their entire life — a lack of education, a lack of skill sets, either alcohol or some other substance-addictive behavior, a mental health issue, a physical health issue,” Clark said.

“If we can address that stuff, I think — I know — we would have much better outcomes,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense to send someone to jail for three years and spend $180,000 [on incarceration], knowing that there’s a one-in-two chance they’re going back.”

Electronic-monitoring pilot program

The sheriff has been conducting an electronic-monitoring pilot program in an effort to cut pre-trial prison stays. A bill that has been passed by the Senate, S.212, would provide for expansion of that program.

Clark believes some remaining elements of the Justice Center project could make a difference in other ways.

For example, he says transitional housing for released inmates could be spread out in various apartments rather than centralized in a justice center. Also, he wants to develop a more-cohesive, “holistic” form of case management for those who are in legal trouble.

In Clark’s view, this could include those who have been deemed “at-risk” even if they haven’t been formally charged with a crime. He said case-management services could be provided through the sheriff’s department via partnerships with outside agencies and experts.

“We’re looking at, how do we keep people out of jail?” Clark said. “And then, once they go to jail, how do we support their families and the victims’ families and victims? And then, how do we make sure that, when they come back as citizens to our communities, they’re ready and can be fully integrated?”

There are other, less-ambitious elements of the Justice Center project that nonetheless could have importance for law enforcement. Clark sees a need for a new training facility; he also wants to expand his department’s regional dispatching center, which already handles calls for Bellows Falls police and the Bennington County sheriff.

“We still believe [dispatching] is a way not only to help us grow and provide a service to the community, but to help create jobs,” Clark said.

New headquarters needed

The Justice Center also was supposed to house an expanded sheriff’s headquarters. Clark’s still looking for new offices, saying a 19th-century Newfane building that once served as the county’s jail is no longer suitable for his department.

“We really need to start looking at a building that has more space, a better location and will support all the services that we’re currently offering and want to offer,” Clark said. “I’m hoping that in the next couple of years we can work with the side judges to find a more suitable location.”

All of this activity will require money, and Clark knows he can’t ask the cash-strapped state for start-up funding. There also will be no income from housing detainees, since that part of the project is dead.

“There are still some federal grants [available]. There are some philanthropic organizations,” Clark said. “There are people out there who believe in criminal justice reform.”

Operationally, Clark said some of his proposed programming could be supported by offender fees or state reimbursement. As with Liberty Mill, Clark says he won’t undertake any project if it doesn’t make financial sense.

“We believe [...] we can operate this as a successful business model, which would encourage others to replicate it,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #352 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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