Punitive practices are at issue in the race to be prosecutor of Bennington County.

Daniel Nichanian

“Bennington Locks Up More People Than Any Other Vermont County,” Seven Days reported in 2016. Led by State’s Attorney Erica Marthage since 2006, county prosecutors have consistently “thrown the book” at defendants, this investigation documents. Marthage’s office charged a man with murder for selling drugs that resulted in a fatal overdose, and prosecuted an incarcerated woman for helping other incarcerated people file legal briefs; the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the latter charges. In 2013, prosecutors obtained a 10-year sentence against an African American man for first-time drug possession; when the state Supreme Court overturned this sentence, they dragged out his release. “The mantra here is punish, punish, punish,” a defense attorney told Seven Days.

Marthage is seeking a fourth term this year. In the Aug. 14 Democratic primary, she defeated attorney Arnie Gottlieb 51 percent to 49 percent. Gottlieb is still on the November ballot as an independent, so the general election features a rematch; independent candidate Christina Rainville will be on the ballot as well.

Gottlieb frames his candidacy as a challenge to the “tough-on-crime” philosophy that he associates with Marthage. He is running on increasing the use of alternative sentencing and diversion programs, and calls for expunging past marijuana possession convictions. On the campaign trail, Marthage has presented herself as already sharing Gottlieb’s approach, rejecting the view that she is overly punitive by highlighting the diversion and restorative programs that she promotes and her work to assist people looking to expunge their criminal records.

But Marthage’s differences with Gottlieb come into view in their answers to an ACLU policy questionnaire. She rejects the premises that “prosecutors overcharge and unfairly pressure defendants into pleas,” that the bail system ought to be reformed, and that prosecutorial decisions are tied to racial disparities. Gottlieb, meanwhile, espouses a goal of cutting the county incarceration rate by 50 percent and talks of changing practices around cash bail and of ceasing the use of overcharging as leverage in plea bargaining. He also writes that he wishes to find solutions to not reincarcerate people for technical violations of strict probation and parole terms that had “set [them] up for failure,” whereas Marthage expresses satisfaction with the status quo on this issue. Moreover, a specific disagreement concerns Gottlieb’s proposal for a drug court to process drug-related offenses in a manner focused on rehabilitation; Marthage opposes it on the grounds that funds are insufficient and that it would duplicate a local organization’s programs.