Criminal Justice Reform
Justice Reinvestment II: The House is focused on criminal justice reform this biennium. The House Corrections and Institutions Committee has taken the lead on related initiatives. The work is driven by commitment to building a Vermont criminal justice system that is equitable and rehabilitative; a system where sentenced and incarcerated Vermonters have access to due process and services that meet their needs and set them up for successful re-entry and participation in our communities; a system where people are treated with dignity and respect; and a system that ensures public safety.
Despite foundational strengths and progress improving criminal justice outcomes, Vermont faces some challenges in continuing to safely reduce corrections populations. We have started to see an increase in violent crime, overcrowded prison facilities, and critical gaps in how people within the corrections system with behavioral or mental health needs are identified and connected to resources.
To better understand the drivers of crime, recidivism and prison population, the legislature enlisted the help of the Council of State Governments. It has led work that has included all branches of Government and stakeholders. This process is known as Justice Reinvestment II. CSG helped synthesize mountains of criminal justice data and, as a result, the House is now working on legislation that will restructure furlough and parole to ensure better consistency and access to due process; strengthen policies to allow people to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior; strengthen connections to appropriate substance use disorder treatment and mental health services in the community; and develop re-entry housing that better fits the needs of people leaving prison. We believe these policy changes and strategic investments will ensure more successful re-entry for those leaving prison and lower recidivism and re-incarceration rates, which will result in savings and greater public safety.
Sentencing Reform: Vermont’s current criminal law could be defined as a hodgepodge. It is made up of common law that has been put into statute, and new offenses created by the legislature over the years. Our criminal laws have evolved in a manner that has led to inconsistency between offense levels – similar conduct leads to different punishments. The House passed H.580, a bill I introduced, which starts the process of implementing recommendations from the Sentencing Commission related to restructuring Vermont’s criminal code. The Sentencing Commission continues its work and, by the end of the year, will make additional recommendations on proposed sentences for criminal offenses in time for the legislature to address them next biennium.
When the restructured criminal code goes into effect, it will provide more consistent interpretations of our criminal offenses, better notice to citizens and police as to what conduct is prohibited, and greater proportionality between offenses and punishment. In addition, the updated code should lead to shorter terms of imprisonment for many offenses, thus reducing our incarcerated population.
Judiciary Committee Update
Keeping Our Kids Safe: In 2020, the House continued its ongoing work to update Vermont’s child sexual exploitation laws. While this is a subject that makes many people uncomfortable, it is not a subject we can avoid if we want to protect our youth. Current state laws do not address existing file sharing technology used for child pornography, which means some people who should be charged with very serious crimes currently have a loophole. The House Judiciary Committee is working on legislation to ensure that anyone engaged in sexual exploitation of children will be held accountable.
Protecting Victims of Domestic Violence: The House Judiciary Committee is working diligently to protect those trying to escape from domestic violence with H.610, a bill that prevents people served with abuse prevention orders from accessing firearms. Often the time after an abuse prevention order is served is the most volatile and the most dangerous for the person seeking relief. 50 percent of murders in Vermont occur in domestic violence situations. The Judiciary Committee has developed H.610 to offer additional security and safety for endangered Vermonters.
Good Samaritan Law: Some laws in Vermont are unfortunate relics of past times. Under current law any unmarried woman who engages in sexual intercourse meets our legal definition of prostitution. In February, the House passed a bill (H.568) to create a Committee to review Vermont’s prostitution laws with an aim to modernize them while maintaining criminal penalties for trafficking, coercion, and exploitation of minors.
In addition, the bill added prostitution to our Good Samaritan Law. The Good Samaritan Law protects those calling for emergency help from prosecution for certain criminal offenses. For example, someone using heroin can call 911 to request emergency assistance for a fellow user who has overdosed without fear of then being charged with a the offense of possession of heroin.
By adding prostitution to the Good Samaritan Law, we are helping to ensure that people who are often in dangerous situations have better access to law enforcement protection. Whether one supports decriminalization of sex work, is opposed to decriminalization, or is on the fence, we can all agree vulnerable Vermonters should be kept safe. This law is an important step to ensuring more protections for these victims.
Universal Pre-K: Universal PreKindergarten is an important part of Vermont’s education system. The House Education Committee has taken extensive testimony on a bill to clarify Act 166, a 2014 initiative that provides 10 hours of publicly-funded Pre-K per week for all Vermont students. Vermont employs a “mixed delivery” system in which both public schools and private programs play an important role. Among other clarifications, the bill attempts to streamline Universal Pre-K administration by disentangling the dual oversight roles of the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services. The Committee is also considering whether private providers should be required to hire licensed educators to provide direct instruction to all students within three years. (Current regulations require simply that a licensed educator be present.) The bill includes a study on the ability of private providers to meet this goal, which would examine workforce capacity, cost and funding implications.
A Focus on Literacy Education: Vermont has a great education system that requires continued oversight to ensure all our students achieve success. In the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” Vermont’s literacy and math scores dropped. Though our NAEP scores remain slightly above the national average, the 2019 report indicates that “better than the national average” is still alarming: 32 percent of our fourth graders scored below the NAEP “basic” level, 31 percent demonstrated only “basic” reading skills, and just 37 percent are “proficient” (28 percent) or “advanced” (9 percent).
Against that backdrop, the House Education Committee is developing a literacy bill with a clear goal: to ensure that all Vermont students learn to read. The bill takes a regional approach by offering grant money, through the Education Fund, to groups of four or more supervisory unions that are geographically adjacent. These regional groups would work together, in a sustained and targeted manner, to adopt best practices. Funds could be used for staffing, coaching, training or other approaches to guarantee that all K-3 students, and especially those who struggle, receive instruction from highly skilled teachers in the five foundational pillars of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
School Construction: Since Vermont put a moratorium on State funding for school construction aid a decade ago, districts have been deferring maintenance or issuing bonds to pay for projects. Over last summer and fall, an informal working group led by the Vermont Superintendents Association compiled a report indicating that schools in the State face up to $565 million in pending or proposed projects. The House Education Committee is reviewing H.209, a bill on which I am the lead sponsor, that sets up a task force to assess how other states are addressing school construction, and the costs and options for Vermont.
Global Warming Solutions Act: The House has spent considerable time focusing on strategies to address climate change. In February, the House passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) based on H.688, a bill on which I was one of the lead sponsors. The GWSA buildes accountability into our systems of reducing greenhouse gases.
Climate change is not a distant threat. It is happening today, and it is accelerating. The 2010s was the hottest decade on record; the 2000s was the second hottest. Vermont saw six storms that qualified for FEMA assistance in the 2000s. In the 2010s that number grew threefold to 18. We are experiencing more extreme-temperature events, more power outages, and more ticks than ever before.
Vermont has set ambitious climate goals, but up until now, they have lacked teeth. The lack of accountability and coordination has slowed progress. In fact, far from leading on climate, Vermont has lagged behind Massachusetts, Maine, and New York. We are the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gas in the Northeast and the only state whose emissions have increased in the last 30 years. Massachusetts passed a GWSA law over a decade ago mandating greenhouse gas reductions. Their emissions have declined 25 percent while their economy has grown 25 percent. Maine and New York both passed similar bills last year.
GWSA lays the foundation for building a future of resilience, energy transition, and economic development. It starts by establishing an accountability framework. It also directs the State to work with community experts to develop a roadmap for action. Taken together, these steps will move our goals into action so we can proactively adopt policy to address climate change.
Act 250 Amendments: For fifty years, Act 250 has provided a critical tool for directing development in Vermont in a manner that promotes our shared vision of prosperous cities, villages and towns surrounded by working farms and forests, all set within a landscape of unspoiled mountains with clear air, and clean streams, rivers, lakes and ponds. Our State, and the challenges we face, have evolved since Act 250 was enacted. The rate of land development is increasing and has substantially exceeded the rate of population growth. Water quality is declining. Species are going extinct at an ever-accelerating rate due to loss of habitat. Extreme weather caused by the climate crisis have led to increased threats to our communities. Recognizing these issues, the House passed H.926 to modernize Act 250 to reflect today’s challenges and needs.
This bill proposes changes that require consideration of climate change, ecosystem protection, and environmental justice when proposed development must comply with Act 250 (only approximately ¼ of development in Vermont must obtain an Act 250 permit). H.926 strikes a balance between increasing project review to protect important resources while releasing certain areas from Act 250 review where we want to encourage development. It eases Act 250 regulations for downtowns and village centers where development is strategic and sustainable. It also works to strengthen natural resource protection by promoting sustainable trail development, protecting forest blocks, and supporting working forests.
Climate Change and Transportation: Last year, the General Assembly established a pilot Electric Vehicle (EV) incentive program that rolled out in December 2019. This program has already helped fund more than 50 new plug-in car purchases. The House is currently considering a $3 million proposal to continue promoting EVs, including more public charging infrastructure.
About 45 percent of Vermont’s carbon emissions currently come from transportation, so this energy sector is the biggest target in our effort to tackle the climate crisis. The House is considering increased investment in public transit this year and the promotion of Transportation Demand Management plans that incentivize carpools, biking, and telecommuting to reduce the need for commuting and parking spaces.
Older Vermonters Act
The number of Vermonters over the age of 65 is projected to jump by 50 percent over the next decade. Our current demographic makes us the second oldest state in the nation behind Maine.
H.611 establishes an Older Vermonters Act, detailing a system of services, supports, and protections for Vermont residents 60 years of age or older to remain as independent as possible into their later years. This “bill of rights” ensures that policy decisions relative to older Vermonters enhance their self-determination, safety and protection, financial security, optimal health and wellness, social connection and engagement, housing and transportation, and family caregiver support.
The legislation also directs the development of a Master Plan for Aging in Vermont to serve as a blueprint for state government, local communities, private organizations, and philanthropy to build environments and systems that promote healthy aging.
The bill ensures that the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) will act as a guiding voice in state government regarding the needs of older Vermonters. It also requires DAIL to set up a process for registering all business organizations providing in-home services to older Vermonters not covered by Medicaid.
Other features of the bill include a study committee to examine the issue of self-neglect in older Vermonters, as well as formal reporting on adult abuse and neglect complaints and investigations.
Reforming Noncompete Agreements
This year, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee looked at reforming noncompete agreements. Such agreements require employees to promise not to work in the same industry in a geographic region for a certain amount of time after leaving the job. In some cases, these agreements have been overused by employers. Signing a noncompete agreement may mean that the employees cannot find gainful employment in their area of expertise or geographic region for a period of time. This disproportionately harms low-level employees, leaving them without the ability to work. At the beginning of the Biennium, I introduced a bill (H.1) that would ban noncompete clauses in Vermont. In February, the House passed an amended version of the bill that would prohibit most noncompete agreements between an individual and a business. The bill limits noncompete clauses to a small sector of employees – those that are higher-income earners (about $75,000) and are key executive or administrative employees. It provides them with ten days to review the agreement, and the ability to have the agreement reviewed by an attorney, with the cost reimbursed by the employer. Non-solicitation agreements and confidentiality agreements remain available for businesses to use with their employees to protect proprietary information and client lists.
In 2018 the legislature decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis. Cannabis is therefore already legally in use in Vermont, and has been in use even before these legalization efforts. But, in Vermont, individuals’ primary source for cannabis is the black market. The bill the House passed (S.54) creates a regulated market for cannabis, ensures that the state collects tax revenue from the sale of cannabis, and regulates cannabis products so that Vermonters know what is in the products they purchase and consume. A key feature of this bill is the use of tax revenue to focus on preventing youth use and ensuring our roads are safe. The goal of this bill is the elimination of the black market as much as possible, delivering products of certified purity and known potency, and minimizing the growth of heavy and hazardous use by adults and any use by children.
Strengthening Vermont’s Rural Health Care Systems
During the 2019 session, the House took the lead in creating the Rural Health Services Task Force to evaluate the state of rural healthcare in Vermont and consider what is needed for the sustainability of this system. The Task Force brought together members of State government with different types of health service providers from across rural Vermont, including representatives of hospitals, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, primary care, visiting nurses, and private practice. The task force returned to the legislature at the beginning of the 2020 session with two main recommendations: to expand telehealth and to address our healthcare workforce shortages. The House is now focusing health care policy around these two themes.
“Telehealth” incorporates a variety of practices that allow for medical care and advice to be delivered remotely. In “telemedicine,” an appointment takes place via a real-time video connection between a patient and a provider. The House is working on expanding insurance reimbursement for telehealth. Telehealth has potential to increase access to healthcare for rural Vermonters, older Vermonters, and others who face challenges in getting to an appointment. Telehealth access is only available to the extent that communities have strong enough Internet to take advantage of these opportunities, so the House recognizes the link between broadband Internet expansion and access to healthcare.
Vermont’s health care workforce is currently in need of 70 primary care physicians, and this number is only expected to increase: 36% of Vermont’s primary care physicians are over age 60. Vermont is also short nearly 4,000 nurses, which puts significant strains on our remaining workforce and also impacts the quality of care for our patients. The House is putting forth a variety of plans to address this workforce need, including supporting students through scholarships and loan repayment and reducing excessive barriers to licensure. In addition, the House is considering a proposal to put additional funding into training for EMS personnel, a need that is felt by many of Vermont’s communities. We look forward to supporting educational opportunities for Vermonters while also maintaining a strong health care workforce.
Updating Our Constitution
The House is committed to defeating structural racism to build a truly just and equitable society. People of all races and genders who live in, work in, and visit Vermont should feel welcome and safe. Proposal 2, a proposed amendment to ban slavery in the Vermont State Constitution, unanimously passed the House on January 21st. It would amend the Vermont Constitution to clarify that slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited. Article 1 of Vermont’s Constitution currently outlaws only adult slavery, setting the age for which a person cannot be enslaved at 21. This implies that the Vermont framers condoned child slavery. (In actuality, they were more likely allowing for youth apprenticeships that were very common at the time.) While the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in 1865, Proposal 2 would close the age loophole and send a very clear message that slavery or indentured servitude is not condoned under the Vermont Constitution.
The process to amend the State Constitution spans two different sessions in the Legislature. An amendment must originate in the Senate and be approved by a two-thirds vote. Then it must receive a majority vote in the House. The passage of this amendment requires House and Senate approval in this biennium (before May 2020) and in the next biennium (before May 2022), and then a majority vote in the general election (November 2022). It is a deliberately slow process as changing our State’s Constitution should not be taken lightly.