Although Vermont is one of the safest states in the country, its citizens still rightfully expect the legislature to continue to prioritize public safety. In considering bills that address public safety, the Judiciary Committee must also ensure that the law does not unduly infringe upon individual liberties and freedoms. The Committee seeks to fulfill Vermonters’ expectations that they will have ready and equitable access to justice, that individuals will receive due process if their rights and liberties may be curtailed, and that the law will protect vulnerable citizens. In addition to balancing these often-competing goals, the Committee focuses on many other aspects of the State’s judicial and legal affairs.
This session, to improve public safety, the legislature enacted a number of laws addressed by the Judiciary Committee. Act 1 strengthens aspects of the Sex Offender Registry, ensuring that a sex offender reports updated information for the Registry to the Department of Public Safety prior to his or her release from a correctional facility. H.105 makes it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent and with intent to harm, even if the subject had consented to the taking of the photograph or video. S.102 assists law enforcement in its efforts to combat drug trafficking by modifying rules related to the forfeiture of assets used in perpetrating certain drug-related crimes. The Act also expands forfeiture rules related to dog fighting. Act 14 prohibits violent felons from owning firearms and requires state courts to submit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) the names of those whom a court has adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness.
While addressing these efforts to improve public safety, the legislature was careful to protect individual liberties. S.13 (a separate bill than Act 1) ensures that Sex Offender Registry information listed on the Internet is accurate. It also provides a mechanism for individuals to challenge the accuracy of information or their inclusion on the Registry. While S.102 allows forfeiture of assets used in the perpetration of certain crimes, it does not allow for such forfeiture to occur unless an individual is actually convicted of that crime. This contrasts with the federal forfeiture law, which allows for forfeiture when an individual is charged with certain crimes, whether or not convicted. Act 14 provides a procedure for individuals to have their name removed from the NICS database.
Criminal convictions often result in consequences for Vermonters beyond court-imposed penalties and sentences, particularly for felons. For example, even after serving their time and paying any imposed penalties, individuals who have been convicted suffer from an inability to obtain housing or employment due to their criminal records. In addition, incarceration for non-violent offenders is often costly and counterproductive.
Collateral consequences and counterproductive incarceration are particularly problematic for juvenile offenders. Current science shows that the brain continues to change and mature throughout childhood and adolescence. Due to the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and misread or misinterpret social cues, and less likely to think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions. They are, in short, more likely than adults to make bad decisions and to violate criminal law. So long as their record follows them, juvenile offenders will suffer the consequences of their errors long after they have reached adulthood and completed the court-imposed punishment for the crime.
The legislature has enacted law that seeks to alleviate the problem of collateral consequences and counterproductive incarceration, particularly for juveniles. S.115 establishes a quicker path to expunging their criminal record for individuals who committed their crimes when younger than 25. H.62 prohibits sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. Each of these bills await the Governor’s signature. The House also passed H.95, which seeks to ensure that States Attorneys file more cases in the Family Division of state court rather than in the Criminal Division when those cases involve juveniles. If filed in the Family Division, the juvenile’s record will not be public, thus collateral consequences from the conviction will not travel with him or her into adulthood. The Senate did not act on this bill in this session.
In addition, the Judiciary has taken testimony on a bill that seeks broader reform of Vermont’s criminal justice system. The bill would, among other changes, reduce the number of crimes punishable as felonies; eliminate jail time for non-violent offenders; prevent people from being kept in jail past the end of their sentence due to lack of housing; expand parole eligibility for individuals who have serious medical conditions, were sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile, or are 65 years of age or older; and eliminate incarceration for violations of parole conditions that are not new crimes. Although the bill was not advanced in this session, such issues will likely be at the forefront of Judiciary’s work in the next session, when it continues to seek to rationalize the penalties for the various crimes in Vermont law, reduce unnecessary and costly incarceration rates, and minimize the collateral consequences of conviction.
During the current session, Judiciary also worked to improve protection of children. The Committee assisted with a major initiative of the General Assembly in light of the tragic deaths of two infants last summer. It took testimony on aspects of S.9 that related to criminal justice. Further, in H.86, the legislature enacted amendments to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, which assists with the enforcement of child support orders regardless of where a child lives.
The legislature also enacted a State False Claims Act (H.120), which provides for penalties for those who knowingly submit false or fraudulent claims to the State. Full enforcement of this law should bring revenues to the State while also providing a further deterrent to those who would defraud the government. Addressing a separate type of fraud, the legislature also amended laws related to home improvement. Act 13 makes it easier for prosecutors to prove that a contractor has engaged in home improvement fraud.
In short, the Judiciary Committee had a busy and productive session.