Scott administration urges Vermont lawmakers to address crime

By SHAUN ROBINSON

VtDigger

Published: 01-08-2024 4:21 AM

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is urging lawmakers to increase the consequences for people accused of crimes who violate conditions of release — and to make changes to Vermont’s bail policies that could result in more people being held in jail ahead of a trial.

At a legislative hearing on Wednesday and in earlier interviews with VTDigger, administration officials sounded the alarm over what they characterized as a widespread perception that Vermont has grown less safe in recent years. At the same time, the state’s judicial system, those officials said, is failing to hold many offenders accountable — and to deter them from reoffending.

Jaye Pershing Johnson, Scott’s general counsel, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the administration has heard during recent community meetings that, when it comes to the state’s criminal justice system, “it seems like all carrots and no sticks.”

“We need to be able to say things out loud like ‘chaos’ — and ‘gangs’ to refer to gangs in a community — because there are communities faced with these challenges who are hearing lots of euphemisms, and nothing done to address the problems,” she said in an interview. At Wednesday morning’s hearing, she urged lawmakers to use such words.

Judiciary committee members said that they’ve heard similar perceptions about public safety, too, though several questioned whether those perceptions are rooted in data.

The administration’s rhetoric — which a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont characterized on Wednesday as “tough-on-crime policies” — is set to spur fresh debate this year as lawmakers attempt to address persistent public safety challenges that frequently intersect with the state’s opioid epidemic.

“I don’t disagree with most of the governor’s priorities,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the judiciary committee, told Johnson at the hearing, though he later added that he looked forward to “healthy” committee debates this year.

The Scott administration is concerned about the rate at which some people who are accused of a crime reoffend when they’re released ahead of a trial, Johnson said. She pointed to data from the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs showing that, as of early December, nearly 60% of the active criminal cases in Vermont involved people with two or more pending criminal dockets.

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When a judge is considering whether or not a person should be held in jail, she said, the administration wants there to be a greater emphasis on any previous violations of court-ordered conditions. That can mean abiding by a curfew, for instance, or being barred from traveling outside state lines.

Timothy Lueders-Dumont, legislative and assistant appellate attorney for the state’s attorneys and sheriffs department, said the administration believes this could make people less likely to violate conditions and, thus, improve community safety.

The change could also reduce the strain on Vermont’s court system, Lueders-Dumont said, which has been plagued for years by a persistent backlog of pending cases. Lawmakers have said that addressing the backlog will be a major priority for them this year.

Scott’s office also wants to eliminate an existing $200 cap on the amount of bail a judge can impose in certain misdemeanor cases, Lueders-Dumont said. Scott signed legislation creating that cap and made other bail reforms part of state law in 2018. 

The administration has since changed its mind about that cap, Johnson said in an interview, adding that it has had “unintended consequences.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, one committee member — Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden-Central — has introduced legislation that would eliminate cash bail entirely. Johnson said in an interview that her team opposes such a proposal.

Tucker Jones, an attorney for the state’s Department of Public Safety, said the administration also wants to see Vermont’s laws on drug use updated more broadly to “maximize the deterrent effect,” especially if a drug sale leads to someone dying. 

Jennifer Morrison, Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said in an interview that the need for more deterrents is critical. Based on police interviews with people accused of drug-related crimes and feedback from law enforcement, she said, the admission believes that “the narrative in the field right now is that Vermont’s open for business for drug traffickers, and that there’s very little accountability.”

Sears said his committee plans to take up for the first time S.58, a bill he filed last year that mirrors several of the administration’s public safety priorities for 2024.

One proposal around which lawmakers and the administration are set to be at loggerheads this year — with Johnson reiterating the governor’s opposition during an interview — would provide about $2 million in funding to establish up to two overdose prevention sites in the state.

Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Vermont, said after Wednesday’s hearing that his organization already has “serious concerns” about Scott’s proposals. 

“We agree that we need to be providing more support and services to people to help them so they don’t become involved in the criminal legal system in the first place,” he said. “But we can’t be relying on our carceral system to provide people the treatment.”