In early January, I was reappointed to the Judiciary Committee, where I had spent my first two terms in the legislature. The Committee has five new members, including four representatives in their first term. To orient these new members, the Committee spent the first weeks of the session with witnesses who explained the State’s judicial and criminal justice systems and introduced issues that the Committee will grapple with throughout the session. Our new members soon learned that the Committee addresses a wide range of important topics.
To evaluate the status of law enforcement’s implementation of a Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, we heard from representatives of the NAACP, the State Police, the Sheriffs Association, the Human Rights Commission, Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, LGBTQIA Alliance, the Office of the Attorney General, Migrant Justice, Criminal Justice Training Council, the ACLU, and the Immigration Task Force. The policy is intended to ensure that law enforcement will treat equally all persons living in, visiting, or traveling through Vermont regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, or other personal criteria. The Committee will continue to evaluate whether the current policy is working and whether changes are required to strengthen its protections.
The Committee passed out its first bill of the Session, H.19, which creates an offense prohibiting the sexual exploitation of a person in law enforcement custody. One would think that such behavior would already be prohibited, but we occasionally uncover gaps in our criminal code that need closing. To this end, the Committee will also pass out H.7, which relates to second-degree aggravated domestic assault. At times someone committing the crime of domestic assault in Vermont will also have committed a similar offense outside the State, but only crimes committed in Vermont can be used in determining the severity of the charges. H.7 would allow comparable offenses in other states to be factored into potential charges.
The Judiciary Committee has also begun its consideration of H.103, which would modify the State’s drug crimes. Under current law, an individual can face a felony conviction for possessing a certain amount of various drugs, sometimes an amount that an individual suffering from substance abuse disorder could use on a daily basis. H.103 would make possession of any amount of illegal drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony. An individual possessing any amount of drugs with the intent to sell would, however, face a felony conviction. The bill is intended to continue the shift toward addressing addiction as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice matter.
In addition, the Committee will evaluate changes to the State’s expungement law. Individuals who plead guilty or are convicted of an offense often suffer legal consequences beyond prison and fines because of their criminal record. Collateral consequences of having a criminal record may include being unable to get or keep some licenses, permits, or jobs; being unable to get or keep benefits such as public housing or education loans; or being unable to serve in the military or on a jury. To reduce these collateral consequences, individuals who have fulfilled the terms of their sentence and have met other requirements may, after a waiting period, seek to have their criminal records expunged, meaning their criminal record is erased. The Committee will consider how to expand the availability of expungement.
In the coming weeks, the Committee will be taking testimony on certain legal issues related to H.57, an act relating to preserving the right to abortion. The bill recognizes the fundamental right to the freedom of reproductive choice for women. It does not change current practice in Vermont but, given the politics in Washington, there is a need to protect those fundamental rights in State law.
The Committee will also consider how to provide effective protections or remedies when an individual is facing repeated intimidation or harassment based on the individual’s protected class (for example, their race or religion). These are just a sampling of the many issues that will pass through the Judiciary Committee during the session.