Among his proposals, the Governor in his budget sought to transfer the cost of childcare, higher education, and part of the cost of teacher’s retirement to the Education Fund. He proposed adding $135.9 Million dollars of costs into the Education Fund and increasing the General Fund Transfer to the Education Fund by $86 Million leaving a difference of roughly $50 million dollars. To make up the difference he proposed that school boards go back and level fund their budgets. This proposal comes late in the game and would, as he proposed, require postponing to May 23rd the date on which communities vote on school budgets. On Friday, an amendment to a bill came before the House that would have changed the date of budget votes to May 23rd. The Houser rejected the amendment on a vote of 87 to 47.
The following is a statement that I made during the debate on the amendment:
South Burlington School administrators started work on this year’s school budget back in September. The School Board had its first meeting regarding the budget at the end of September. Work continued on the budget into January. Administrators and the Board put in many hours to ensure that we had a budget that would fulfill the ends of our District. A budget that would ensure that our students are ready for college, careers, or their next steps in life at a cost that the community will support.
Our costs are going up. We have seen increased needs of students who are walking through our doors. We are obligated to provide an appropriate education for all of these students. Our special education costs are going up and our costs to implement state mandates are rising. It took significant time and effort to come up with a budget that meets these needs.
Administrators and school boards should not have to spend another three months of valuable time to redo budgets, to undo the significant work they have accomplished. There are too many other important priorities on which time and energy should be spent to ensure that our public schools continue to be one of the major attractions of our community.
Two other reasons why I am against this amendment. First, to level fund a budget, we in South Burlington would undoubtably have to cut significant numbers of teachers and staff. But we are obligated to provide notices of reductions in force by late March. We are obligated to have all contracts signed with teachers by May first. A budget vote on May 23rd would be beyond these deadlines. Even if those deadlines were removed, problems would be presented. We need to provide notice to teachers on whether they will be employed at our school next year soon. If they are not coming back, they need the time to find new positions.
If we are to significantly change how we are funding our schools, this body needs to be very deliberate and careful. We should tread lightly when dealing with this most important asset of Vermont.
Despite significant progress in strengthening Vermont’s laws against sexual assault, too many victims of sexual violence are not ensured access to effective justice, health care, and social services. The Judiciary Committee took up three bills that aim to reinforce the State’s sexual assault laws.
H.25 sets forth procedures and notification requirements related to medical forensic examinations of sexual assault victims. Each year, Vermont’s certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners perform approximately 250 sexual assault forensic exams. The forensic exam kits are, in turn, analyzed by the Vermont Forensic Laboratory. The bill would establish the right of sexual assault victims to receive the examination without cost, set forth timelines for delivery of kits from law enforcement to the Lab, and establish requirements for notifying victims of results and available services.
H.27 would eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault-related crimes. Sexual assaults can be some of the most challenging cases to investigate, charge and prosecute. For various reasons, many victims choose not to immediately report sexual assaults to law enforcement. Because it can take years for sexual assault victims to be ready to engage with the legal system, it is important to eliminate the barrier of the current six-year statute of limitations for such cases.
H.74 would establish a new misdemeanor crime of lewd and lascivious conduct, including nonconsensual touching of another’s genitalia or other intimate body part or nonconsensual exposure of one’s own genitalia. This new crime is needed to address a recent Vermont Supreme Court Case, In re: KA, which limited misdemeanor lewdness charges brought under the existing crime of “prohibitive acts” to the context of prostitution. Prior to this case, prosecutors used this crime in cases that did not involve prostitution both in plea deals or to bring a misdemeanor charge when the evidence or the offender’s behavior did not support or justify a felony charge. H.74 would provide a way to resolve cases to ensure there is a record that a sex offense occurred without requiring a felony charge or placement of the offender on the Sex Offender Registry.
The Committee was informed of other factors that influence the effectiveness of the State’s efforts to address sexual violence. Law enforcement could use additional resources to address the large number of sexual assault cases. For example, one Special Investigation Unit in Lamoille County has only two officers who must deal with nearly 400 sexual assault cases annually. This unit suffers from high turnover.
During the third week of this Biennium, the Judiciary Committee took up its first bills of the session and received its first review of the marijuana legalization issue.
The Committee considered H.14, a bill that would modify the State’s Immunity Statute, or Good Samaritan law. Say the State wants to encourage an activity, such as trying to help another person in danger. To do so, a law may get rid of disincentives to taking that action, such as eliminating potential liability for any injury that may result. Generally, immunity statutes protect the Good Samaritan from liability for ordinary negligence – failing to use reasonable care resulting in injury to another. Such laws do not provide immunity for gross negligence or willful and wanton omissions or acts or conscious disregard of a known risk.
H.14 would tweak the law on immunity related to Automatic External Defibrillators (“AEDs”). Currently, the law provides immunity when someone is negligent in the use, ownership or training in the operation of AEDs. There are exceptions. Manufacturers, designers, developers, distributors, installers are not, for instance, immune from product liability laws if the AED is defective. The exceptions provision also applies to “suppliers,” which has raised a concern. H.14 proposes to strike the word “supplier” and replace it with the term “seller.” “Supplier” may be taken to mean an entity, such as a nonprofit, that donates an AED to a community-owned building. We do not want to discourage donations of AEDs by subjecting Good Samaritan donors to liability for negligence. The change from “suppliers” to “sellers” in H.14 would eliminate this disincentive.
The Committee also took testimony on H.20, which would modify the State’s open container law by prohibiting not only alcohol consumption in a moving vehicle, but also marijuana consumption. Under current law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, be it in a car or elsewhere, would subject an individual to a civil fine. The bill would tack on a higher civil fine when the possessed marijuana is consumed in a vehicle, recognizing the increased danger posed by driving under the influence of marijuana.
Marijuana came up in a different context when the Committee received a report on the work of the Joint Justice Oversight Committee, made up of five representatives and five senators who meet during the off-session. The bicameral committee held six meetings over the summer and fall to look at issues related to the regulation of marijuana. In its report, it did not take a position on whether Vermont should legalize marijuana for adult use. Rather, it recommended that if the General Assembly does advance such a proposal, it should include the following:
* a well-regulated commercial market that includes small cultivators,
* an allowance for adults 21 years of age or over to cultivate up to two mature and seven immature marijuana plants and the marijuana that is harvested from those plants,
* a strong education and prevention program aimed at youth under 25 years of age that is rolled out well in advance of any retail sales of marijuana, and
* a financing structure that covers all costs to the State related to legalization of marijuana while supporting a regulated market that can undercut the illegal market in hopes of moving illegal sales into the regulated market.
The Joint Justice Oversight Committee also recommended that the General Assembly pay close attention to any federal guidance coming from the new administration and keep in contact with other states that have legalized marijuana or are considering legalizing marijuana to keep abreast of the latest policies, practices, and challenges. I anticipate that the House Judiciary Committee will be hearing more about this issue in the weeks ahead.
This past week, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a joint meeting to consider loopholes in Vermonts sex abuse laws. Details on that hearing can be found in this Vermont Digger article. In addition, the House Judiciary Committee learned about and weighed in on funding of victim’s services in the Scott Administration’s budget adjustment proposal, received further training on how to apply Results-Based Accountability to the programs the Committee oversees, heard from the State courts’ administrator as to efforts to streamline CHINs cases (children abuse and neglect cases), and considered a bill related to how to calculate time periods for court deadlines (See H.4).
The Judiciary Committee received a preview of a number of issues that will likely occupy significant attention during this session. We focused on various aspects of justice reform – ideas to fix potential problems in the State’s criminal justice system and to reduce incarceration rates – and on other aspects of how our courts are doing at providing equal access to justice. By focusing on these concerns, the Committee will seek to reduce negative impacts to individuals involved in the criminal justice system and reduce costs and improve efficiencies in the courts. Doing so will help improve the State’s economy and assist in developing and maintaining a strong State workforce.
The location where an offense takes place should not be determinant of the range of outcomes for an offender. But in our State, where there are effectively 14 criminal justice systems, one for each county, this is often not the case. For the same action, an offender in one county could face a felony charge while an offender in another county could be diverted to a treatment court without being charged with a crime. Although we may not be able to eliminate all disparities across counties, as a matter of fundamental fairness we should strive for rough equivalency of opportunities to avoid conviction or incarceration.
More specifically, three counties currently have separate drug treatment dockets and one county has a DUI docket. In these dockets, certain qualified offenders whose addiction has led to criminal behavior are provided treatment services with the close oversight of a judge to ensure the offender is complying with his or her treatment requirements. Where there are treatment courts, an individual charged with a drug crime or first offense DUI has the opportunity for charge reduction, charge dismissal, or a lesser period of incarceration.
The Judiciary Committee will be evaluating whether the treatment court dockets can be expanded to all counties. When treatment courts follow best practices, double-digit drops in recidivism rates can be obtained. In short, as a matter of policy, every county should have drug, DUI, and mental health treatment dockets.
Geographic disparities are also encountered due to broad sentencing ranges for certain crimes. For example, a conviction on heroin trafficking carries a sentence under State law of 0 to 40 years. The average sentence for those convicted of this crime in Vermont is 4 to 7 years, but the wide sentencing range allows prosecutors to seek much longer sentences for the same crime. The potential disparity can be addressed by narrowing the potential sentencing range. The legislature can ensure that similar offenses carry similar maximum penalties. Maximum penalties can be set so that they are high enough to account for egregious but rare behavior and low enough to inhibit one county from adopting an average sentence that is far longer than the statewide average.
Witnesses also explained the need for bail reform. In order to ensure against flight risk and nonappearance in court, offenders may be required to post bail to be released before their trial. Often individuals may not have the resources to post bail and thus are incarcerated at a substantial cost to the State. In addition, individuals who cannot post bail may decide to plead to an offense rather than remain incarcerated pending a hearing. The system works a disservice to the impoverished and is a poor use of the State’s resources.
The Committee will address over-incarceration due to bail policy, including by disallowing bail for those who are cited into court as opposed to those who are arrested and lodged. If a police officer has decided to cite a person into court rather than to arrest him or her, then the officer’s judgment that the individual does not present a flight risk should be respected. In addition, rather than holding individuals because they have failed to appear, a better investment may be to develop a system to notify offenders of pending court dates. Such notification systems in other states have proved effective in increasing appearance rates. Other ideas for reforming our bail system were proposed.
The Committee also focused on Results-Based Accounting. We first received an overview of the state of the judiciary from the Justices of the Vermont Supreme Court. Then the Court Administrator reviewed statistics addressing how well the courts are doing in achieving the State constitutional requirement to provide every Vermonter with free and prompt justice in conformity with the law. Generally, the courts are effectively addressing the many cases that come before them. But we also learned that the courts continue to face challenges in addressing a growing number of juvenile cases related to abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights as a result of the ongoing opioid epidemic.
In addition, we heard from representatives of the Crime Research Group (“CRG”), which studies the results and the cost and benefits of various law enforcement and judicial programs. They addressed the statistics related to potential bias in police stops and arrests. In addition, they reviewed the effectiveness and efficiency in reducing recidivism of a number of criminal justice programs such as the Community High School of Vermont, housing support, Restorative Justice Panels, treatment courts, and several other programs. The Committee will be taking a deeper dive into the valuable performance information that CRG and the Court Administrator provide as we evaluate the effectiveness and cost/benefit of programs of the law enforcement and judicial systems.
There are numerous measures of how well our courts are doing, including whether cases are being decided expeditiously and whether litigants receive procedural fairness. An increasing number of litigants in our courts do not have legal representation, which potentially negatively affects each of these measures. The courts run more efficiently and with improved procedural fairness when litigants are represented, but we are experiencing a growing number of litigants who do not have legal representation.
The Vermont Bar Association and organizations such as Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Law Line are offering assistance to indigent litigants in court. In addition, the courts are modifying rules and procedures to make it easier for unrepresented litigants to navigate the legal process. This is a growing problem, however, with no easy solutions.
Other related issues that the Judiciary Committee may be tackling during the session relate to expanding the availability of expungement to reduce the collateral consequences of criminal records and improving the use of pre-trial and pre-charge services to avoid criminal records in the first instance.
Many of my neighbors were dismayed by the results of the presidential election. I, too, am deeply concerned. Decisions that will be made in D.C. will impact how we proceed in the Vermont legislature. As we begin the next biennium, we will face uncertainty in many areas including providing health care to Vermonters, cleaning up Lake Champlain, addressing climate change, and reforming criminal justice. But I choose to remain hopeful, if not optimistic.
At the national level, I am hopeful that governing policy will not mirror campaign rhetoric. To the extent that this is not the case, I have faith in the ability of our institutions to act as a moderating influence. Even though we will have one party in control of the federal legislative and executive branches, the Senate will retain the ability to filibuster legislation that is deemed too extreme. Just as important is the federal bureaucracy, staffed by many career civil servants and constrained by procedural and substantive rules. I worked for 12 years at the Department of Justice under the Clinton and Bush administrations. In my experience, Clinton’s political appointees in the executive branch pushed policy initiatives in one direction and Bush’s appointees pushed in the opposite direction. In both cases, the bureaucracy tended to temper and restrain those efforts. Also, I have confidence that the judiciary will continue to apply the rule of law, upholding the protections afforded by the Constitution and judicial precedent.
Closer to home, the Vermont legislature can play an important and active role in protecting and advancing Vermont values that may be threatened at the national level. We can stand up for state laws if they end up conflicting with federal policies such as those on immigration, L.G.B.T. rights, public education, and social services spending.
I anticipate that the Vermont legislature will maintain the positive outcomes of the last session. In the recent biennium, we reformed criminal justice with legislation that addresses deficiencies in our juvenile justice, victim notification, and driver’s license suspensions systems. We increased access to the ballot box with same-day, automatic (when obtaining a driver’s license), and online voter registration. We also implemented environmental protection measures including landmark clean water legislation, pollinator protection, and balanced renewable energy and solar siting legislation. We enhanced economic development through expansion of a first-time homebuyer down-payment assistance program and other initiatives. We supported children and working families with earned sick leave legislation and education reform.
In the coming session, the legislature should not merely defend our past achievements, but should continue to advance efforts to protect the environment, enhance public education, support vulnerable Vermonters, and encourage appropriate economic development. Of particular interest to me will be our continued efforts to reform criminal justice in the face of a probable change in direction in this area at the federal level. It is likely that the new administration will reinstitute the war on drugs, using increased policing and incarceration to attack not only the suppliers of illegal drugs, but also substance users. Vermont has recognized that such a policy has failed in the past and is unlikely to work in the future. Although the State should continue to rein in the supply of drugs in our communities, the legislature should also expand programs to curtail the demand for these substances, including expanding the State’s Treatment Courts and increasing the capacity of our hub-and-spoke opiate treatment system.
Picking up the slack where the federal government no longer supports our efforts will put increasing pressure on the State’s budget. Recognizing this, the legislature should also work with our new Governor to address the concern of many Vermonters as to the affordability of living in Vermont. To that end, the House and Senate need to continue to ensure that State government is working as efficiently as possible and is delivering results that justify the expenditure of the community’s tax dollars.
Although the tasks of the legislature in the upcoming biennium will not be easy, I look forward to getting to work on January 4th to sustain and improve our way of life in Vermont. If you wish to share your ideas of what the legislature should focus on in the upcoming session, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-3086.