Her own brand of justice: Upper Valley native Sarah George presses progressive reforms as prosecutor

By DIANE DERBY

For the Valley News

Published: 02-12-2022 9:35 PM

Sarah George’s LinkedIn page prominently features a clenched Black fist superimposed over a rainbow banner, and a photo of a smiling and confident-looking George with her hand placed firmly on hip. Her biography notes that she serves as Chittenden County State’s Attorney, appointed to the position by Gov. Phil Scott in January 2017 and officially elected in November 2018.

Then comes this: “Just doing my part to overhaul a racist and classist legal system and replace it with healthy and vibrant communities. Ultimate goal = make my job unnecessary.” She includes a tagline that also appears on her email correspondence, a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The 38-year-old Quechee native wears her mission proudly, and unapologetically. Overseeing a heavy criminal caseload in Vermont’s most populous county, George has used her position as state’s attorney to call out what she believes is wrong with Vermont’s criminal justice system. It is not a short list.

In the five years since she was first tapped as the county’s top prosecutor, George has drawn headlines — and touched off heated debate — with decisions that she believes will promote much-needed reforms.

She has worked to end the use of cash bail (“All it does is hold poor people in jail and let rich people out,” she says) and she was an early advocate for safe injection sites to supervise heroin users (a policy recently adopted in New York City as “first in the nation,” but not adopted in Vermont). Her 2019 decision to forgo criminal charges in three high-profile murder and attempted murder cases — based on questions about the defendants’ sanity — prompted a rare intervention by the governor when he asked Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan for a review. It also led to a remarkable public exchange between George and Donovan (who’d previously held George’s job) in which George accused Donovan of being “disingenuous and hypocritical” when he refiled the charges.

George stunned the law enforcement community last month in saying her office would decline to prosecute charges stemming from “non-public safety” traffic stops — such as for a broken taillight — pointing to data that shows such stops disproportionately target people of color. The stops may also prompt police to “fish” for evidence, according to George’s directive.

And her January decision to take up an appeal by Gregory Fitzgerald, whose complex plot to kill his wife, Amy Fitzgerald, in 1993 led to a life sentence for first-degree murder, means Fitzgerald may soon have a chance at parole — much to the distress of the victim’s family. In defending that decision, George has made it clear that she is opposed to life sentences.

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To her supporters, George is a leader in tackling systemic racism and poverty, using her power to break down old norms to make the justice system more equitable. To her critics, George has overstepped the boundaries of her office in allowing her personal beliefs to dictate legal doctrine, bending the law in the name of “prosecutorial discretion.”

But George has seemingly moved past the noise as she continues on her mission to dispel what she sees as an overly simplistic equation that “conviction + jail = justice.” She frequently turns to Twitter to promote her views or retweet others she agrees with. (Her username, @SarahFairVT, draws from her middle name, “Fair,” her mother’s maiden name).

Ask George what led her to this role of reformer and she traces it back to 10th grade at Hartford High School for early signs.

“I do remember talking with my parents at a young age about being frustrated by how the school was mismanaging conflicts. It was really clear that there were kids with really tough home lives, and they were coming to school and acting out and the school was just suspending them,” she said in a recent interview. “I was so upset about that. Don’t they see that these kids are going home to tough home lives?” One girl attempted suicide in her junior year, George said.

She credits her early empathy to the influence of her mother, Holly George, a registered nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center until retiring last summer after 45 years.

“I think it was just my mother showing me how to care about people. She’s a lifelong nurse and she just instilled in us from a young age about taking care of people. When other people are well, we are all well,” said the prosecutor, whose older brother and his wife are also nurses at DHMC, as was her grandmother. Her father, Stephen George, chose carpentry.

For her part, Holly George credits her daughter with opening her eyes to injustices she says she was never fully aware of.

“She has worked so hard, and her heart is just so dedicated to people who need people to care for them and do the right things,” Holly George said. “She is so devoted and cares so much that she is willing to go the extra step.”

And she bristles at the negative feedback she has seen and heard about her daughter.

“Too bad that people who actually have the courage to stand up for what is right in this world have to take that crap,” she said. “I give her so much credit, but at the same time, as her mother, it kind of worries me too.”

A prosecutor’s power

Sarah George, whose family moved from Norwich to Quechee when she was 2 years old, maintains close ties to the area. From 2006 on, she worked weekends as a server at the Simon Pearce restaurant, giving it up only when the pandemic set in nearly 14 years later. She initially took on the extra work to help pay off student loans, but she kept it up even after assuming the state’s attorney’s position because, in her words, “it was just a really great mental health break.” It also allowed her to step away from her phone for six hours at a time.

“I just got to talk to people and have really great conversations about duck and cod,” she said. The tourists didn’t know about her other life, while local patrons — many of whom she’d known since childhood — respectfully didn’t dwell on it.

She has also kept in touch with Doug Heavisides, her English teacher in ninth and 10th grades at Hartford High School, who sends George supportive text messages when the day’s headlines might take a toll.

“It’s funny how the roles of teacher and student get switched after a while,” Heavisides said of watching George’s career take shape. He remembers George not only for her “incredible work ethic,” but also for showing a maturity that is rarely seen in high school students. When most teenagers broke off into their favored peer groups, George stood out.

“Sarah, even at a young age, kind of transcended that. She was kind to everyone. She was thoughtful and kind. Even then, the strength of her moral compass was really pointing north,” said Heavisides, who invited George to speak at the senior awards night in 2020, when he was director of the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center.

“She is such a great example of a strong and intelligent human who uses her skills for the good of everyone, and that is what I wanted those students to see,” said Heavisides, now principal of The Wilder School. “Her message was, she never really thought she would be in this position, but no matter what position you are in, you can help people and effect change. It’s your responsibility.”

George began work in the state’s attorney’s office shortly after graduating from Vermont Law School in 2010. She had already earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology from Castleton State College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Connecticut.

She entered VLS in 2007 intent on becoming a public defender, but that changed after she spent time during her second year of law school working in the Chittenden County Public Defender’s office. That’s when she realized, in her words, it was “too late” for a public defender to make a significant difference once criminal charges had been brought.

It became clear to George that the real power for change rested in the hands of the prosecutor.

“There are a hundred decisions that are already made before the public defender is even involved, really important decisions,” George said. She describes herself as “a die-hard fan” of the community restorative justice model that would divert cases before they are criminally prosecuted, perhaps bypassing the court system altogether. While the model has been around for more than two decades in Vermont, it has been “vastly underutilized,” she said.

During her years as a deputy state’s attorney, George said, she witnessed a never-ending cycle of people repeatedly passing through the doors, seemingly no better for the outcome of their previous court visits.

“I used to say all the time that the system was broken, and then the more I have been a part of it, I realize that it is doing exactly what it is designed to do, which is to over-police and prosecute poor people and people of color, people with mental health issues, people with substance use issues,” George said.

“The way I see it, changing was always going to require this time where we are not prosecuting them, we are not using the legal system to address the issues,” she said. “But the mental health and the substance use (resources) haven’t stepped up yet.”

That lack of resources may be the one area where George and her law enforcement colleagues are in agreement.

Criticism from colleagues

While her directives are often driven by her beliefs, George insists that every major decision she makes has been thoroughly vetted with her staff of a dozen deputies, and “a culmination of months of research and data collection.”

“If it appears easy, it isn’t,” she said. “I’m 11 years as a prosecutor. I know there will be pushback, because I am young and I am a woman. I have to come out with a ton of support behind me, data and research and a lot of back-and-forth. My staff is always involved with these policies and decisions to make sure I am not missing something.”

George is well aware of the criticisms of her decisions, and says she has weathered her share of death threats, rape threats and other intentions to do her harm. Not unexpected, she said, given her public profile and penchant for shaking things up.

But the criticism from those she works with in law enforcement clearly stings.

“When it is coming from people who just hate me ... that doesn’t keep me up at night. But it does when it comes from police chiefs who I really respect. People who I have actual relationships with that I would hope for more from,” George said.

One of those she singles out is South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke.

“When he gets upset with me or says things about me it bothers me, because I really respect him,” she said. “I take all of the critiques from police seriously, but I take them far more seriously from the chiefs I have really great relationships with.”

“The reality is that some of these things we are never going to agree on and we’ve sort of agreed to disagree on a lot of things, but I do struggle more with that pushback. I spend a lot of time trying to get them to see my side,” she said. “At some point we just need to move to the next thing because we aren’t going to agree.”

But as Burke sees it, George has not shown much interest in hearing from law enforcement during the critical stages of developing such policies. Burke said he has repeatedly brought his concerns to George in efforts to have key discussions before the directives hit the press.

“If there is any missed opportunity, it is to collaborate more with those of us in law enforcement. It is not lost on police leaders that reform is needed and afoot. I think a lot of us are committed to that work, but there are realities as to what we have to do in terms of public safety at the local level,” said Burke, a Woodstock Union High School graduate who was named South Burlington’s chief in 2018, following 21 years with the Burlington Police Department.

“I see it as a blind spot. Why certain perspectives seem to carry more weight with Sarah than others is a little lost on me,” he said. And while acknowledging that they share a mutual respect, he does not hesitate to get to the heart of police concerns.

“In my career, this is new territory, to have a prosecutor out in front making a lot of policy decisions that oftentimes feel as if we are legislating through policy,” he said, “I think we need to be tempered and regroup and think about our public safety charge from our communities.”

A history of reform

Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough, a fellow VLS graduate who describes himself as a close friend of George’s, said his office has a history of supporting reforms that are intended to improve the criminal justice system and achieve better outcomes.

“I think we are working toward similar goals. Windsor and Chittenden (counties) both have a history of incubating new ideas,” Goodenough said.

Noting that George’s predecessor, Donovan, introduced “driver restoration days” that allowed low-income Vermonters to regain their suspended licenses after revocation for failure to pay tickets, Goodenough added, “I think Sarah has continued in that same vein.”

He also singled out the work of Robert Sand, who held Goodenough’s position for 15 years before moving over to VLS, where he taught George and later became the founding director of the Center for Justice Reform.

When Sand clashed with local police chiefs in 2007 over his handling of a felony marijuana case — he allowed it to go the diversion rather than pursue criminal prosecution — then-Gov. Jim Douglas said Sand had abused his prosecutorial discretion, and accused Sand of being on a “personal crusade” to relax drug laws.

Sand testified at the Statehouse in support of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana as far back as 2008, but it would take the Legislature another five years to adopt decriminalization.

In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through an act of the Legislature, and by 2020, the state had approved the legal sale of marijuana, with dispensaries slated to come on line this October.

George takes exception to those who say she is overstepping or legislating (a claim shared by others who did not want to speak on the record). State’s attorneys, she said, have routinely legislated via their positions, including those who have chosen to be more “tough on crime.”

“The discretion we have as elected prosecutors has ALWAYS been used and when it is used to be more punitive, nobody bats an eye, but when we are faced with incredible racial discrepancies and attempt to use that same discretion to fix some of that, everyone is all up in arms about it,” she emailed in response to a question on the legislating charge. “I’m an elected official and was very clear about my positions on these issues when I ran for office.”

George, who plans to run for reelection this year, is not sure whether she will see any opposition this time (she ran unopposed in 2018). If she does, she said she expects it will be from a Republican candidate “and it would certainly be directly related to the positions I have taken.”

While there has been speculation that George is working her way up to higher office — she recently hosted a Zoom event with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch to promote his ascent to the U.S. Senate — she says she doesn’t have her sights set beyond her current role.

“I really love my job, I love being a lawyer, and I enjoy having a caseload and being in court,” she said. “Higher office wouldn’t allow for any of that.”

As for the need for more collaboration, George has heard the critique before.

“But I don’t have the luxury of coming at these things not completely set on my position. As soon as I start letting people change my mind, or not being sure of it, I open myself up for even more attacks, which I think they have appreciated,” she said. “I do think people recognize that and will sometimes give me a little more credit for being stubborn in my position.”

For now, the person whom Gov. Scott hailed as a “strong, decisive prosecutor” when naming her to serve as Chittenden County State’s Attorney in 2017 shows no signs of backing down.

Diane Derby is a longtime journalist who handled criminal justice issues in the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy. She lives in Montpelier.

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