Report from Montpelier

Representative Joan Lenes with National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson.
Representative Joan Lenes with National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson.
by Rep. Joan Lenes

The work of the legislature has a certain rhythm, but there are moments that stand out. Friday was one such day. We had Adjutant General Cray, Michael Dubie, our former Adjutant General and other members of the Vermont National Guard in the State House. They were not the ones in the spotlight. We had before us Vermont National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson. Skylar was there with her parents and siblings.

She is the first woman to become certified as a National Guard combat engineer. Before 2015, this specialty training was for men only. Skylar passed every test and did exactly what all her male counterparts did. The work of a combat engineer is to work along with combat troops to solve battlefield challenges such as clearing minefields, building bridges under fire or destroying structures to block the enemy’s advances.

On her 18th birthday, Skylar enlisted in the New Hampshire National Guard while she was senior in high school. She left for training soon after graduation. When Skylar became a student at the University of Vermont, she transferred to the Vermont National Guard. It was a true honor and pleasure to meet Skylar and her family. I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking with her.

Meeting Skylar Anderson came at the end of a week that had us working through the budget. During budget deliberations, the moments can be tense, the conversations rich with thoughtful yet probing questions, supportive statements and criticism as the entire body examined what the House Appropriations Committee has been working on for the past three months.

In recent years, the process has improved with a results based accountability (RBA) approach. Silos are being dismantled and departments are looked at in conjunction with committees of jurisdiction. As an example, my Committee on Corrections and Institutions was asked to examine then give feedback and recommendations on budget matters involving the Department of Corrections.

The policy committees are more intimately involved with the departments than the Appropriations Committee. They know what is needed and what can help improve programs and departments. I believe the work must be done hand in hand.

The governor’s budget had recommended closing the St. Johnsbury work camp, a correctional facility. The work camp has the capacity to house 112 offenders who qualify and meet certain criteria. Currently half of the beds are not occupied, so that side of the facility was mothballed. This is a result of our “success” within the criminal justice system. We are not incarcerating as many offenders who would be eligible for work camp status as we once were. We are intervening earlier and helping with addiction and mental health treatment and other programs that can truly help with rehabilitation. Our prisons should house offenders who need to be there for the safety of our communities.

I, with two others from my Committee, have worked with the legislators from the St. Johnsbury area, the Commissioner of Corrections and her staff, as well as the town manager and some select board members from St. Johnsbury. We wanted to see what we could do to fill those other 56 beds.

Currently we have offenders who are incarcerated past their minimum-sentenced time and could be out, except for what the Dept. of Corrections deems lack of appropriate housing. What we are hoping to accomplish is to have a maximum of 50 offenders, who fit this category, to move out of our other state facilities and have about 50 out-of-state offenders move back into Vermont facilities. It would save the state from paying for out-of-state beds and we would be able to offer our Vermonters the programing they need to be more successful when they are released. The process will continue to develop as the appropriations bill moves to the Senate.

I will be at Bruegger’s Bagel Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:30. Please stop by. If this time does not work for you, reach me at jlenes@leg.state.vt.us or at 802-999-9363 or leave a message with the Sergeant at Arms at 1-800-322-5616.

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