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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Once again last week, my adopted state of Vermont became a whipping boy for the right-wing screech monkeys.
The controversy they created involving Vermont District Court Justice Edward Cashman illustrates perfectly the willingness of right-wingers to politicize criminal justice and their equal willingness to jump to baseless conclusions without ever acknowledging the facts.
Earlier this month, Cashman sentenced Mark Hulett, 34, of Williston, Vt., to a 60-day prison sentence for three counts of sexual abuse of a child over a four-year period starting when the girl was 6.
The reaction to the sentence by conservatives in Vermont and around the nation was swift and, unfortunately, wrong.
Republican lawmakers in our state capital of Montpelier, sensing a political opportunity, were quick to attack Cashman, a Republican appointee and Vietnam veteran with 25 years on the bench, as being soft on crime. Vermont Gov. James Douglas called on him to resign.
The national conservative media, without knowing any of the facts of the case, presented Cashman as, in the words of Bill O 'Reilly last week, "the worst judge in the U.S.A."
As a result, the Statehouse has been flooded with letters and e-mails from all over the country decrying what many perceived as an example of a liberal jurist running amok.
But once you get past the demagoguery and the political pandering and look at the facts, one quickly sees that Cashman was hardly being a liberal softy by issuing a sentence that, on the surface, appears lenient but definitely is not.
Under Vermont Department of Corrections rules, Hulett was classified as low-risk and ineligible for sex-offender treatment. The only way he would qualify for treatment was if Hulett received the lesser sentence of 60 days.
That 60-day sentence came with lots of conditions. Hulett got up to 10 years on the first count, three years to life on the second count and two to five years on the third count. While all three of those sentences were suspended, Hulett got what amounts to a lifetime sentence of probation.
If he refuses treatment, he'll go to prison for a very long time. If he violates any of the terms of his probation -- no alcohol or drug use, no association with any children anywhere and no viewing or possession of pornography, among other conditions -- he goes to prison.
What Cashman essentially gave Hulett was two choices, rehabilitate himself or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Cashman, who has a long reputation as a tough, no-nonsense judge, displayed the sort of judicial courage that's rarely seen today. He has forced Vermont to confront a major problem with the state's judicial system.
There are Republicans in the Vermont Legislature who would like to see mandatory 25-year minimum sentences for sexual assault. It's an idea that would play well politically and would quickly bankrupt the state.
A state prison system already bursting at the seams would need more prisons for these long-term inmates. An already overworked court system would need more judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Already, the Department of Corrections gets more money than any other state agency, and Vermont -- a state that balances its budgets each year -- cannot afford to greatly expand its prison system.
In issuing his sentence, Cashman said that "I keep telling prosecutors, and they won't hear me, that punishment is not enough. ... If all you've offered the victims of this crime, the state, the Corrections Department, anybody else here, is retribution, you've misinformed them. Our job is much harder than retribution."
He is right. Almost every Vermont inmate will be released at some point. Unless Vermont is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a massive expansion of the state's prison system to satisfy the need for vengeance, offenders are going to continue to be released into the community.
Cashman is forcing Vermonters -- and the rest of the nation -- to think long and hard about crime and punishment and the costs all of us must share. Lengthy jail terms without rehabilitation will not accomplish anything. A different approach is needed, one divorced from cheap political demagoguery.
These are the facts that Americans didn't hear from Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the right-wing screech monkeys. That people didn't hear them was hardly a surprise.
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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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