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.