BRATTLEBORO—This year’s election marks Brattleboro attorney Gwen Harris’ fourth run for the position of Windham County State’s Attorney.
Harris’ previous three tries were against longtime incumbent State’s Attorney Dan Davis, who retired in September 2007 after 19 years in the position.
Tracy Kelly Shriver of Brattleboro, a Democrat, was appointed State’s Attorney in October 2007 by Gov. Jim Douglas to replace Davis. Shriver now faces her first election, and Harris believes that her vision of how the county’s criminal justice system should be run will appeal to voters.
Harris, who is running as an independent, has been a trial attorney in the area for 20 years, and has faced Davis and Shriver in court on many occasions. In talking to people around the county, she said there is a growing perception that “people are not receiving the punishment they should be getting” and that “there’s just a revolving door at the courthouse.”
Part of that perception, she said, is due to the number of offenders who get released on conditions and end up back in court on another offense a short time later.
Harris said that there should be one standard of justice, and that she would seek stricter conditions of release and higher bail for offenders, as well as stricter penalties for those who violate those conditions. The same hard line would be taken against probation violators.
She also said she would seek more input from and better collaboration with area law enforcement agencies, and improve the quality of prosecution of cases.
“The police are doing a great job, but I see a lack of case preparation and a lack of witness preparation in the state’s attorney office,” Harris said. “If you decide to take a case to trial, you better be sure you have the resources to go forward.”
Harris maintains that even though Davis has been gone for three years, “not a lot has changed in that office. It has the resources to do a good job. I think it’s a question of leadership.”
Shriver, who first joined the Windham County State’s Attorney office as a deputy in 1999, disagrees. She points to what she considers the most important change, the specialization of the prosecutorial team in her office.
Now, Shriver says one person handles sex abuse cases, another person handles domestic violence cases and a third person handles drunk driving and drug cases. This leaves Shriver to deal with property crimes and major felony cases.
“I would like to think that the relationships with law enforcement agencies have built upon [Davis’] work, but I have made this my office and that the sense of justice, the reasonableness, and the tenacity I bring to this job differs from my predecessor,” Shriver said. “I have a willingness to look at each case as more than just ‘what are the charges.’ You have to look at the individual needs of each victim and each defendant and use all the resources we have to make sure the outcome is fair and just.”
That goal of a fair and just outcome has become more difficult as the criminal justice system in Vermont deals with budget and staff cuts as well as an increased case load, Shriver said.
“Since the recession started, property crimes have increased greatly, and most of them are crimes of survival — people stealing to survive — and that’s a big change from the past,” she said. “We have as many child sex abuse and domestic violences cases as ever. The people’s safety depends on accountability and certainly of justice, and our challenge is to use our resources in the best way to achieve that.”