Neil Young’s song The Needle and the Damage Done details the devastating impact that Young witnessed heroin having on musicians in the early ‘70s . Now, nearly half a century later, we’re dealing with the impact of heroin’s far more powerful opioid cousins.
Burlington has just created the position of so-called “Opiate Czar” who will be tasked with coordinating the responses between Burlington’s social service agencies, housing entities, health care providers and law enforcement. Logically, the position will be housed within the Burlington Police Department.
But the Burlington Police Department is just one of a network of law enforcement agencies in Chittenden County. And as in every Vermont county, the top law enforcement officer is the State’s Attorney.
For those from away or even people more familiar with the nomenclature used by popular culture, the term State’s Attorney may be an unfamiliar one. But just about everyone knows what a District Attorney is - and a DA and a State’s Attorney are one in the same. TV shows such as Law and Order and its analogs popularize dramatic courtroom scenes, but in Vermont and particularly in Chittenden County, much of what the State’s Attorney does, strongly resembles social work.
At the state level, the criminal justice system is integrated with the myriad social service systems delivered by the Agency of Human Services. Most notably, if the efforts of the Department of Children and Families are unsuccessful, the Department of Corrections becomes the last stop in the social safety net. But if at all possible, the real objective is to keep people from ever entering the social services system.
In an effort to alter the long cyclical pattern of multigenerational poverty, dysfunction and substance abuse, outgoing Chittenden State’s Attorney TJ Donovan has done an outstanding job of creating a network of alternative justice programs. With the recent election of Donovan to Attorney General, chief law-enforcement officer for all of Vermont, Governor-Elect Scott will now be in the position to appoint Donovan’s successor.
I’ve served as a Deputy State’s Attorney myself, and like Neil Young, I’ve also “seen the needle and the damage done”, so I know it will take real leadership to continue to move the State’s Attorney’s Office forward, while at the same time fulfilling the Vermont Oath of Office to “do equal right and justice to all persons.”