Making Her Mark: Sarah George, Chittenden County State’s Attorney
by Elayne Clift

Sarah George
Photo: Jan Doerler

In 2016, when people urged Sarah George to run for Chittenden County state’s attorney because T.J. Donovan was running for attorney general, her first reaction was “I can’t do that. I don’t know enough about politics!” Nevertheless, she threw her hat in the ring and won, filling a two-year vacancy created when Donovan won his election. In November, she will run again for a second term of office, and this time, she knows a lot about politics.

George, who grew up in Quechee—where she still works part-time as a waitress at the Simon Pearce Restaurant—studied psychology and criminal justice as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut with the goal of becoming a behavioral analyst, possibly for the FBI. She went on to earn a master’s degree in forensic psychology at Castleton State College. By then she realized that what she enjoyed most was the legal aspects of the work she wanted to do. Wanting to make a difference in the criminal justice system, George decided to become a prosecutor.

She attended Vermont Law School from 2007, graduating in 2010. During the summer of 2008, she interned at the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, and a year later she interned at the Chittenden County Public Defender Office. During her third year of law school, she interned again, this time in the US Attorney’s Office.

After graduating from law school, Donovan, then Chittenden County state’s attorney, hired George to investigate domestic violence cases and later to prosecute them. Once she passed the bar examination in 2010, she became the deputy state’s attorney, a position she held for six years, before becoming the county state’s attorney.

For the first three years as deputy state’s attorney, about 95 percent of the cases George dealt with were about domestic abuse. After that she took on a general caseload, prosecuting everything from driving under the influence (DUI) to murder.

In an interview last year when she became the Chittenden County state’s attorney, George told the Burlington Free Press that she thinks prosecutors and defense attorneys have similar goals in criminal cases. “I really view us as being on the same page,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure that justice is being done but that defendants’ rights are not being violated.”

Dean Shirley Jefferson bestows George with her
Juris Doctor at Vermont Law School graduation.

As a deputy, George spent most of her time in court and very little time in her office or out in the community. Now, she says, as state’s attorney, she spends less time in court and more time in the community, meeting community partners, hearing from constituents, and talking to others in leadership to tackle the issues we all face. “I miss being in court, but I love meeting so many different people and learning from them what they see as faults in the justice system, and what they see as strengths. I like finding out how they think we could do better or what policies we should work on,” she says.

Looking Ahead

If she is elected in November for a four-year term, George says she wants to do everything she can to improve the criminal justice system. “For me, that means several things. First, we must fully recognize the implicit bias that we all have and we must own our own privileges. We need to make sure that our system is treating everyone equally, despite their race, ethnicity, or income. We also need to make sure we are addressing each defendant’s underlying issues and not just reacting with punitive responses.”

Sarah George surrounded by her large staff in the state’s attorney’s office.

She continues: “We need immediate access to medically assisted treatment, we need more mental health services and more substance use services, not only in our community but also in our jails. And we need to recognize how crimes impact our community in a negative way but also impact the victims in a traumatic way. We need to make sure that victims are made whole, to the extent possible, and help to make their voices heard.” George adds, “It’s important to strengthen our relationship with law enforcement to make sure that people are safe and that law enforcement are making arrests when appropriate along with making referrals to alternative programs when appropriate.”

George wants to see Vermont address five major priorities. The first two are protecting victims of domestic violence and allowing our citizens struggling with addiction immediate access to mental health and substance use services. She also wants to see the destigmatizing of addiction, including allowing communities to implement supervised consumption facilities if they so choose. High on her list is electing more women, especially in positions that impact our criminal justice system, and finally she wants to see salary increases for deputy state’s attorneys, whom she says “are considerably underpaid and seriously overworked and often have significant student loan debt.” (A deputy in the Chittenden office, the largest in Vermont, averages about 200 cases at a time. The starting annual salary is about $48,000.)

George also says she wants to do whatever she can to reshape the role of a prosecutor. “There is no arguing that our criminal justice system is broken,” she says. “People often become a defense attorney because they want to try to fix it. But I beg them to become prosecutors, and I beg them to get involved in the elections of their local state’s attorneys. Our system is complex and confusing, but it is fixable. If we do more work to hire and elect prosecutors who understand that public safety and incarceration do not always go hand in hand, that addiction is a disease, that implicit bias is a real thing that needs to be acknowledged and eradicated, or that we can support movements like Black Lives Matter while supporting law enforcement officers, we can fix the system. I want to be a part of that.”

Speaking Out on Sexual Harassment

Sarah George’s voice is clear on the issue of sexual harassment and abuse. She became involved in the #MeToo movement because, as she said on a WCAX interview last November, “I felt like it was important for people in this community to know that this is not just a Hollywood thing.”

Having first became aware of the movement on Facebook and deciding to find out more, George came away “really touched” by what she learned. She felt it was time to add to the conversation. Although she hasn’t been sexually assaulted, she has experienced sexual harassment, often by men she knows. Sometimes the perpetrators are lawyers or other men involved in the legal field. For example, once she asked an attorney she knew for a campaign donation. His reply? “Have you been a good girl?” At other times she’s been asked to smile more or told she looks sexy. Even defendants and witnesses have made lewd comments or asked her out on dates. In one instance, a man she was prosecuting who had beaten his wife asked her out. “These men have no real concept of boundaries. They don’t get the inappropriateness of what they are saying,” observes George.


George with friends and family in the Memorial Day parade in Essex sports her new tee shirt for her election campaign 2018.

At that time, Buxton says, she didn’t give it much thought. “He’s just a jerk,” she told a friend, who said, “That’s not true. You’re normalizing the behavior!” It was then Buxton had her ah-ha moment. Now she realizes how important it is to speak up and to speak out: “It’s important to foster behavior that allows women to say it’s not OK.”

Buxton is glad to see legislation being enacted that gets rid of what Hanzas calls “don’t darken my door,” the practice of punishing whistleblowers. The legislation also ensures that preemployment contracts don’t call for signing away certain rights, making it possible to report sexual harassment and ensuring there can be no demands for counseling or wait periods.

Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, a science teacher who stayed home with her children for eight years before running for state representative almost 15 years ago, served as vice chair of the Health Committee in the house and helped pass universal health care into law (which never became active due to financing issues.) She has been a Democratic majority leader and helped pioneer women’s leadership roles in the legislature, especially in matters that impact women.

She remembers her first term as a legislator, when an older lawmaker touched her backside. She let it go. But the second time it happened, in the cafeteria, she took the incident to party leadership. It never happened again.

A few years ago, another issue of sexual conduct at the state house received wide attention when a former senator was arrested on the capitol steps, accused of sexually assaulting two women, including an intern. The event illuminated the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the Vermont State House and caused some people to take care and be more mindful of their behavior. However, inappropriate sexual innuendo and contact still lurk.

Copeland-Hanzas observes that there is a culture of sexual aggression that makes it hard to put an end to the problem. It’s no longer an issue of training, she says. “We know what is appropriate or not. It’s about fostering a culture that allows women to speak out without fear of offense. We just want sexual harassment to stop. We want the lewd jokes, the sex fantasies, the touching, to end. We need to be able to say, ‘Hey, you just crossed into the stupid zone.”

Sarah Buxton, attorney and former legislator.

All three Sarahs agree that it’s important to speak out, but they also acknowledge how hard it can be in a small state where everyone knows everyone else. As one woman legislator put it in a Seven Days article last year, “Establishing boundaries without burning bridges isn’t always easy. Relationships are a prerequisite for striking deals.”

Still, with 39 percent of the Vermont legislature now female—a higher percentage than any other state except Arizona and Nevada—and with legislators (and lobbyists), like the three women interviewed for this article, changing the culture of the capital here and elsewhere seems inevitable. As women’s leadership has demonstrated time and again, errant men in power are going to be a lot less willing to put a wrong foot forward, or to hear from a counterpart or colleague that they’ve entered the stupid zone.



Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vermont (