Sen. Dick Sears already had a busy session as his Judiciary Committee tackled a reorganization of corrections, marijuana laws, domestic violence and other crime-related issues this year. Well, now his off-session looks to be busy as well.
Sears was joined by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin in Brattleboro today to announce a series of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Brooke Bennett tragedy. And judging from the letter just released from Shumlin to Sears, they are aiming directly at what may have gone wrong at the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Here’s the letter:
July 15, 2008
Dear Senator Sears,
Vermonters are reacting with shock and outrage to the violent acts
committed against Brooke Bennett. The horrific circumstances
surrounding her abduction and death amount to one of the most heinous
crimes ever committed in our state. It is difficult to imagine a more
tragic fate for an innocent young Vermonter or a more devastating
experience for a family and community. This terrible tragedy also
raises significant questions for our criminal justice system, given that
the sole suspect in Brooke Bennett’s murder, her uncle Michael
Jacques, was released from Department of Corrections supervision early
after being convicted of a prior sexual offense.
It is critical that we do all we can to understand what went wrong in
this case and how, going forward, we can continue to strengthen our laws
pertaining to sex crimes in order to protect our children from people
they ought to be able to trust. To these ends, I am calling on you as
chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold up to six committee
meetings and at least two public hearings and to prepare a report on
your findings related to the following questions:
1) What went wrong?:
a. What went wrong within the Corrections Department that enabled
Jacques’ early release from probation? Given his 1993 conviction for
kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman, what prompted the
administration to argue that Jacques should be released early?
Furthermore, why was the decision to do so approved in 2004?
b. Does evidence exist that treatment of sex offenders is effective
at reducing recidivism? We seem to place a great deal of faith in
treatment. For example, completion of treatment is often cited as a
reason for release from custody or supervision. Is this faith
misplaced? If so, how must we change our laws and policies to reflect
2) Changes to Vermont Law between 2004 and 2007:
a. How have Vermont’s laws pertaining to sex crimes changed since
Jacques was convicted and sentenced in 1993? Had current law been in
place at that time, would the circumstances leading to Brooke
Bennett’s death have changed?
b. Since 2004, the General Assembly has passed a number of new laws
which have significantly strengthened the protections Vermonters have
from sex offenders. How will these new laws affect Jacques’ trial and
potential conviction and sentence, going forward?
3) Changes to Vermont law, going forward:
a. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor have called for the
following specific changes in our laws pertaining to punishment of sex
offenders: chemical castration, reinstitution of the death penalty, and
a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for individuals convicted of sex
crimes against children under 12 years of age. If these laws had been
in place at the time of Jacques’ conviction, would the circumstances
leading to Brooke Bennett’s death have changed?
b. What more needs to be done to continue to strengthen Vermont’s
laws pertaining to sexual violence against children? What can we do to
further protect our children from sexual violence, prevent sexual
violence, and protect the victims of sexual violence?
c. In light of the passage of the Adam Welch Act by the United
States Congress, what changes should Vermont undertake during the 2009
In addition to exploring these questions thoroughly over the next three
months, there are immediate actions we can pursue to ensure that our
young people are as safe as possible, starting today. I invite the
Judiciary Committee to join us in urging the Governor to move forward
with full funding for Special Investigation Units throughout the state
and to provide for full time State Police participation in these units
My goal is for the Committee to complete its hearings and prepare its
report by November 15th, 2008. I look forward to discussing the
Committee’s findings and recommendations with you after that date, and
I appreciate your continued vigilance on these matters of utmost concern
Senate President Pro Tem