House Judiciary Committee Update

The 2020 legislative session is reaching its halfway point. March 13 will be the “crossover deadline,” the date by which House and Senate committees must take action on any bills that they want to send over to the other body. The only exceptions are the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, which have one additional week to finish their respective work. In the second half of the session, the House will be considering the Senate bills that have crossed over. I serve on the House Judiciary Committee, and the following explains some of the bills we will be sending to the Senate for its consideration during the second half of the session.

Sentencing Reform: Vermont’s current criminal law is a bit of 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, 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.

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 (H.936) to ensure that anyone engaged in sexual exploitation of children will be held accountable.

Good Samaritan Law: Some laws in Vermont are unfortunate relics of past times. Under current law any unmarried woman engaging 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 being prosecuted 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 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.