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Updated: December 10, 2021 @ 5:06 am
BENNINGTON — Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage has some serious concerns. A recent rash of violent crimes allegedly committed by 18- and 19-year-olds — many from other states and carrying semi-automatic weapons and dangerous drugs — has her rethinking legislation aimed at allowing young adults to be charged as juveniles.
“We’ve been pretty consistent over the years of who gets charged in criminal court and who goes to juvenile,” Marthage said. “Now, this makes it so I don’t have any discretion in what gets charged in criminal court and what gets put in juvenile court.”
The spirit of that legislation, which she supported, is that you don’t “magically become an adult when you turn 18. The people that I’d been working with in the juvenile court, the 12-year-old that maybe was neglected as a kid, then turned into a delinquent kid, all tied to their lack of community support, their lack of role models, unstable housing — that’s what the law was originally aimed at.”
What Marthage said she saw happening was 19-year-old young adults, who were not any more equipped than when they were 16, being sent to criminal court and having to jump through hoops to get them into youthful offender status.
“They would commit an offense at 19, say a burglary that they could plead guilty to in criminal court, and then we’d immediately transfer them to juvenile court for sentencing,” which in the juvenile world, means service, she said. Then, she could determine the individual’s living situation, as well as educational services and any counseling services that were available — all resources, she noted, to which children who are not in at-risk homes have access.
The problem with the new legislation, according to Marthage, is that the States Attorneys should be able to decide which of those cases are placed in juvenile court.
“Allowing us to decide which cases should stay and which ones, on the flip side, should go to criminal court, that gave us flexibility,” she said. “We don’t know where to put those 18 and 19-year-old felony drug dealers showing up with a firearm. I’m not going to put him in a foster home. I can’t hold him in jail because I can’t charge him in criminal court, so what do you do?”
Marthage said it all comes down to secure housing for these young offenders.
“These cases we’re seeing right now; these are not the kids, not the cases we had in mind when we passed that ‘Raise the Age’ legislation,” Marthage said, referring to the change in law that raised the age of a juvenile to 18 and soon-to-be-19.
Marthage alluded to the possibility that gangs or other criminal enterprises now see the Raise the Age law and have decided to take advantage of the loopholes to further their activities.
“The reason I say that I know they know is that law enforcement agencies in places like Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts, modified their law in a very similar fashion, and the law enforcement agencies down there were warning our law enforcement agencies three years ago, telling us that ‘We’d better hope this doesn’t happen or you’re going to end up with the same problem we have.’”
This past April, Anthony Tejada Cruz was arrested during a search warrant police executed at the Apple Valley Inn in Bennington. Two individuals, one 18 and one 19, were arrested in that case. In the police affidavit, the 18-year-old said, “everything here is mine.”
“They knew,” Marthage said. “We now have multiple individuals, all young, all carrying handguns. We are having this influx, and we are just not prepared for it. It’s not just Bennington County, it’s the whole state of Vermont. That has me very concerned. We just don’t have those secure placements to put an 18-year-old with a firearm or with felony drugs. We don’t have the resources for that. We didn’t even talk about that when we raised the age. That never even entered our mind.”
She said what makes it so problematic is that these are not individuals from Vermont.
“There’s no place for them locally, a family home or a relative. The first thing they want to do is get back to where they came from. We can’t just send them back to where they came from, though,” she said.
She said there needs to be an immediate consequence for crossing state lines with drugs and guns.
“The exact thing that they warned us about three years ago is coming true right now, here in Bennington. We have an immediate emergency situation today. Family court and the juvenile court is not equipped to deal with not only the individuals at that age, but the level of public safety concern these individuals are bringing with them.”
She doesn’t mince words about what’s happening and how it’s being pushed under the rug. “The Department of Children and Family, their public line is going to be, ‘We don’t have any issues,’ blah, blah, blah. I know that’s not what’s happening. I tell them, ‘You have an 18-year-old gang member with guns and drugs in your custody. Now, what do you do with him?’”
Marthage has spoken with Sen. Richard Sears, interagency law enforcement officials, and her peers about what she’s seeing. “We talk about this at our State Attorneys meetings, but that’s as far as its gone. I’m supposed to meet with Sears again as a follow-up but there’s been nothing scheduled as yet.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Sears chairs, is scheduled to meet on this issue today.
Marthage still, overall, supports this legislation. “You don’t magically turn 20, and you’re an adult. There has to be a buffer for some of these kids. This violent gang situation is just a small percentage of the cases we see. We knew there would be bumps. There had to be. My hope is that the legislature really looks at this with an open mind and that people don’t just dig into their position on their initial read. This needs to be a living document. It’s legislation that’s going to need to be tweaked and changed as time goes on.”
She said her worst fear is that nothing changes, and Vermont is inundated in our border counties with 18-year-olds carrying semi-automatic weapons.
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