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Judicial Accountability

08/08/08 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna is concerned about the role judges play in the wake of the murder of Randolph teenager Brooke Bennett, and she shares her thoughts with us.

(HANNA) If you've been following the Brooke Bennett case, you know that in 2004 Judge Amy Davenport released Michael Jacques from probation after he served only four years of a six to twenty year sentence for kidnapping and raping an 18 year old girl.  Jacques, who is Brooke's uncle, is currently charged with her kidnapping.  Federal law enforcement has requested more time to investigate Brooke's death and may file additional charges.

Some have blamed Judge Davenport for Brooke's death, and her decision has renewed calls for imposing mandatory minimum sentences that would remove all discretion from trial judges.

I'm not defending Judge Davenport's decision, but I also don't like the kind of "judge-bashing" we often see when it appears that a mistake was made.

But I have to say that I think judgesthemselves are in large part to blame for the public's perception that they are too lenient on sex offenders and aren't responsive to public concerns.

For example, the press recently reported that Governor Douglas met with Chief Justice Paul Reiber to discuss what the courts can do to better hold sex offenders accountable.  It wasn't clear what, if anything, came from that meeting.

To the best of my knowledge, Chief Justice Reiber has not made a public statement, nor has Judge Davenport commented on the case.

I find this silence by the judicial branch troubling.  This is a time when the public needs to understand how judges make decisions and what support and training they receive when dealing with sex offenders.

When judges simply say, "No comment," which may seem the prudent response, it erodes the public's support of the court system and may in fact lead the legislature to pass laws that will ultimately undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Judges have to be willing to engage with the public about who they are and what they do.  And, I think, if bad decisions were made, if only in hindsight, it can be helpful to discuss what went wrong and what steps can be taken to correct the problem.  We expect the executive and legislative branches to revisit their decisions and make improvements.  The judicial branch has an obligation to do the same.

Judges simply can't retreat from public scrutiny during a time of crisis.  Rather, they would do themselves and Vermonters a great service were they to engage in some meaningful dialogue that gives us all a sense of moving forward.

There's much more the court system can do to ensure what happened to Brooke Bennett becomes less likely.  Bewtter training for judges on sex offenders would be an excellent first step.  I suspect there are more changes that could be instituted that would provide judges with better information as well as more public accountability.

This is a time when we should be open to new ideas, and all of us, including judges, should be talking.
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