Updating Vermont’s Criminal Laws

Vermont’s current criminal laws need to be reexamined and reorganized. Over 900 criminal offenses are contained in various parts of the Vermont statutes. Statutory criminal prohibitions in the State cover commercial interactions, environmental regulations, and traditional common law crimes of violence and property damage. Current penalties range from a fifty-cent fine to death. Archaic criminal offenses such as defiling a butter crate are still on the books. Some of the State’s crimes come from common law developed by judges that has long since been written into the criminal code. Others were created by the legislature over the years, often triggered by a crime or social problem that gained public interest at the time, compelling the legislature to act.

The structure, or more accurately the lack of structure, of Vermont’s current criminal law presents challenges. There are inconsistent penalties for conduct that deserves similar consequences. For example, someone who writes a check to themselves out of grandma’s checkbook can face up to 10 years in prison, but someone who uses grandma’s credit card without permission for the same amount faces only one year in prison.

In 2018, the legislature passed Act 142 to reconstitute the Vermont Sentencing Commission. Its goal is, in part, to reexamine and reorganize the State’s criminal code and make recommendations regarding criminal sentencing to the legislature. It was charged with reducing geographical disparities in sentencing and developing a classification system that creates categories of criminal offenses based on the maximum potential period of imprisonment and the maximum potential fine. In doing so, it was to review existing sentencing law and practice as well as the effective use of criminal punishment to determine whether current statutory penalties are appropriate. In short, the Commission will determine how Vermont’s criminal laws can be transformed into a more rational criminal code.

The Commission is made up of a diverse group of individuals involved in the criminal justice system: legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and representatives from the Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety, the Crime Research Group, and the Center for Crime Victim Services. I have been serving on the Commission on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee.

Since its creation, the Commission has met eleven times. In November, it issued a report as required by Act 142. The report made several recommendations, but also noted that additional work remained to be done.

The Commission recommended that the legislature implement a classification scheme that includes five classes of misdemeanors (Classes A through E) and five classes of felonies (Classes A through E), with tiered maximum imprisonment terms and maximum fines. For instance, a Class A misdemeanor would carry a penalty of maximum imprisonment of two years and a maximum fine of $10,000, whereas a Class E misdemeanor would carry no term of imprisonment and a maximum fine of $500. The Commission defined four broad categories of offenses – sexual offenses, property offenses, motor vehicle offenses, and crimes against persons – and reviewed each offense and their associated statutory penalty within the categories to determine how they should be placed in the proposed classification structure. In its report, it made classification recommendations for sexual offenses and property offenses.

Work is continuing on classifying motor vehicle offenses and crimes against persons. The Commission will also continue to evaluate whether to decriminalize certain fine-only offenses, making such offenses civil infractions rather than crimes. The end goal of this multiyear effort is to create a more consistent and understandable criminal code to improve our criminal justice system.