Pubdate: Tue, 25 Mar 2008
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2008 Rutland Herald
Author: Brent Curtis


Leahy, Specter Praise Local Involvement

The two most prominent members of the U.S. Senate  Judiciary Committee
picked up tips Monday for dealing  with drugs and violence on a
national level from  examples being set in Rutland and Vermont.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.,  convened a rare
meeting of the powerful committee  outside Washington on Monday.

Gathered before an audience of roughly 200 people who  stood when the
seating ran out inside the Franklin  Center, the senators and seven
witnesses tried to get  at the heart of a national problem by looking
at what  has been taking place in Rutland and other communities  in

"The myth is still alive that drug abuse and  drug-related crime are
only big-city problems," Leahy,  who is the chairman of the committee,
said at the start  of the meeting. "We need a fresh look at drug crime
  through the lens of the experience of smaller cities  and rural
communities and bringing the Senate Judiciary  Committee here will
give Congress a perspective that  will help shape better solutions."

In Rutland, the mixture of drugs, violent crime and an  organized
community response can all be found.

 From November to February, there were three shootings  in the city
that police said were drug-related, the  last of which ended with the
death of a New York man in  a shooting on Grove Street.

During the hour-and-a-half meeting, the committee heard  from seven
speakers, including Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.;  Rutland Mayor
Christopher Louras; Tom Tremblay, Vermont  Commissioner of Public
Safety; Hal Colston, the  director of NeighborKeepers, an organization
that helps  families in need in Essex Junction; and Bert Klavens, a
drug and alcohol coordinator and outpatient counselor  with Washington
County Youth Services.

Some of the similarities among the testimony presented  struck a chord
with the senators.

Commenting on the high level of cooperation between law  enforcement
and prevention agencies such as the city's  school system, Leahy said
Rutland displayed an aptitude  lacking elsewhere.

"A small community like Rutland has shown more  innovation than many
places in the country," Leahy said  after the hearing.

To Specter, who left the meeting about 20 minutes  before it ended,
the sight of so many interested people  in the audience and the
testimony the committee heard  about the community's involvement in
dealing with the  drug issues were most impressive.

"I think we found a community spirit that ought to be  contagious," he
said during a five-minute recess. "This  problem isn't going to be
solved in Washington; it's  going to be solved in the

That said, both senators were critical of federal  spending that
allocated billions of dollars to  rebuilding and security in Iraq
while leaving  communities at home to fend for themselves.

"We're being told we need the money for the Iraqi  police forces.
Frankly, this senator feels we ought to  worry a little bit more about
our own police forces in  the United States first," Leahy said,
drawing applause.

The hearing opened with testimony from Welch, who told  the committee
the situation in Rutland is hardly an  anomaly in Vermont.

Referring to recent conversations he had with police in  Barre,
Montpelier and members of the Vermont Drug Task  Force, Welch said the
responses to his questions were  the same.

"They all repeat a similar refrain -- drug dealing,  violent crime and
property crime are on the rise in  many of Vermont's

The most recent crime statistics for the state show a  disturbing rise
in violent crime that jumped more than  12 percent during 2006, Welch

"In a small place like Rutland the psychological  impact of violent
crime tends to be greater than it is  in a more urban setting. Our
towns are small enough  here that we know our neighbors and we know
our towns.  The ripples of impact from criminal behavior spread
quickly and deeply, tearing at the very fabric that  holds our
communities together."

Later in the hearing, Tremblay said state law  enforcement has seen a
marked increase in drug  transactions and violent crimes involving

He also said an increasing amount of the drug traffic  -- mostly
cocaine these days -- being brought into the  state was arriving from
out-of-state sources trying to  lay claim to the market in Vermont.

"Many of us in our communities throughout Vermont are  seeing
out-of-state drug sources coming to Vermont to  monopolize drug
traffic, to sell their wares and peddle  their poison on our streets
at a much higher level than  they can in some of the urban areas they
come from."

Asked by Leahy later in the meeting whether there was  any evidence
that Vermont was becoming a haven for  gangs from out of state,
Tremblay said he wouldn't put  it that way.

"I would not say we're a haven, but we have busted guys  with gang
ties who have come here to test the waters,"  he said. "We won't stand
for it, which is why we  participate in gatherings like these that
bring  together different agencies to address the issue."

Tremblay's answer was a relief to Leahy.

"I'm glad to hear that. I would hate to think that any  gangs would
think they could find safe havens in  Vermont," he said. "As a
Vermonter, I don't want to see  my state tainted by these people."

While Tremblay and Bossi said police agencies in the  state work
together, they said law enforcement has had  less to work with because
of cuts in federal grants  that support police salaries, overtime and
operational  support.

In Rutland, Bossi said his 39-member department has  made more than
375 drug-related arrests during the past  five years, but is in need
of more financial support to  supply the personnel and overtime needed
to keep pace  with the expanding drug activity.

While powder cocaine might be the most frequently  trafficked drug in
the state, Bossi said it was second  fiddle to its more potent,
addictive and dangerous  cousin in Rutland.

"Currently the drug that poses the greatest threat to  Rutland City is
crack cocaine ... The availability of  drugs in Vermont has not
changed much over the past  years. What has changed is the violence
that has  increased over the last few years."

While federal funding for local law enforcement was the  primary money
item up for discussion, issues  surrounding drug prevention and
treatment accounted for  the majority of the senators' questions.

Specter quizzed Louras on local mentoring programs for  young people
whom he said were among the most at-risk  population for drug use and
crime in Philadelphia.

Louras said there is a mentoring program in Rutland  that he described
as one of the only avenues into the  lives of at-risk youth.

"It's a difficult problem whether you're in Rutland,  Philadelphia or
Belmont to address what happens behind  closed doors in the family,"
he said.

Superintendent of Rutland Schools Mary Moran said the  schools are
also trying to reach young people in need  before they turn to drugs
and crime.

In some of the worst cases school officials deal with,  the children
are born with drug problems.

"Yes, we have crack babies in Vermont as well as  children who suffer
from the results of fetal alcohol  syndrome . Helping these children
and families as  early as possible gives hope for their future
development and success in life."

For older students, the school operates programs that  give teenagers
things to do during later afternoon  hours, deemed to be the most
risky as far as potential  drug use is concerned.

In one of the only hard lines of questions posed during  the hearing,
Specter asked Moran when students are  first warned about drugs. When
told that drugs weren't  explicitly addressed until the fifth grade,
the senator  asked Moran to consider educating students on the topic

Moran said children in earlier grades are taught about  making healthy
choices, trusting adults and the police  and counseled about who to
turn to for help with  problems.

Colston and Klavens each have experience at the other  end of the
spectrum -- helping drug users kick their  addictions.

"I have witnessed how drug abuse violently tears apart  families As
long as demand for drugs is brisk, there  will be drug dealers lined
up 10 deep to meet this  demand. In my view, drug dealers are people
who have  lost hope."

Klavens said the state and the federal government  needed to find a
way to deal with the demand side of  the drug equation that doesn't
include imprisoning  people.
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