criminal justice reform
Simplifying Vermont’s Criminal Laws
Criminal Justice Reform
Next Step to a Better Criminal Code
This is the report for the third bill that I reported to the House during the week.
H.308 would establish a committee of legislators to reorganize and reclassify Vermont’s criminal statutes.
In the 2013-14 legislative session, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 61. This Act created a working group to review all of Vermont’s criminal penalties, review other states’ sentencing structures, and recommend a sentencing structure. This structure would allow for sentencing consistent with “the gravity of the offense, the culpability of the offender, the offender’s criminal history, and the personal characteristics of an individual offender that may be taken into account.”
The working group consisted of prosecutors from the Association of States Attorneys and Sheriffs and the Attorney General’s office, the Defender General, a Judge, and a representative from the Crime Research Group.
The Group met several times to discuss current sentencing laws, the laws of other jurisdictions, and the recommendations of the Model Penal Code. The working group came to a consensus on a sentencing and fine structure, which was presented in a report published in July 2015.
The group recommended a structure that included 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 example, a Class A misdemeanor would carry a maximum imprisonment term of 2 years and fine of $10,000, a class D misdemeanor a maximum imprisonment term of 30 days and a maximum fine of $1000 and a Class E misdemeanor would have no term of imprisonment and a $500 fine. The Group did not, however, specify which current crimes should be in which category.
H.308 would build on the work accomplished by the Working Group.
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.
Vermont has over 850 criminal offenses. The offenses are contained in various titles in the Vermont Statutes. They cover aspects of commercial interaction, environmental regulations, and traditional common law crimes of violence and property damage. Current penalties range from a fifty-cent fine, to death. (defacing a butter crate, treason).
The work to be done pursuant to H.308 would be the next step in a process to provide a rational criminal code. A clearer, more rational code would 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. The end goal is to create a more consistent and understandable code to improve our criminal justice system.
The committee’s primary task would be to come up with a proposal to place each of Vermont’s over 850 criminal offenses into one of the classification offense categories. The proposal of the committee would be taken up in the 2018 legislative session.
Section by Section Explanation
Section 1 provides for the creation of a criminal code classification implementation committee.
Subsection (a) sets forth the purpose of the committee – to develop and propose a classification system for purposes of structuring Vermont’s criminal offenses.
Subsection (b) relates to membership of the committee. Three current members of the House of Representatives and three current members of the Senate.
Subsection (c) sets forth the powers and duties of the committee.
(c)(1) provides that the Committee will develop a classification system creating categories of criminal offenses on the basis of maximum potential imprisonment and maximum fines. Also, the Committee shall propose legislation that places each of Vermont’s criminal offenses into the classification categories.
(c)(2) – provides that the committee shall consider the recommendations of the Act 61 Working Group.
In addition, the committee may consider other issues:
1) Rules of statutory interpretation for the criminal code
2) Consistent use of mental element terminology, such as intentional, knowing, or reckless states of mind.
3) A comprehensive section of definitions applicable to all criminal provisions.
(d) provides that the Committee will have assistance from the Office of Legislative Council and the Joint Fiscal Office. In addition, the Committee may consult with the Vermont Crime Research Group, the Vermont Law School Center for Justice Reform, and others as needed.
(e) provides that the Committee shall submit a report with proposed legislation by December 31, 2017
(f) relates to conduct of the meetings of the Committee.
The act shall take effect on passage.
The bill was presented to the Committee on Government Operations, which had no objection to the form and conduct of this committee.
The Following is from my report that I gave at the second reading of H.503, a bill to reform bail.
The Right to bail is guaranteed by the Vermont Constitution. Ch. II, § 40.
Bail may be withheld only in the following circumstances:
(1) The defendant is charged with an offense for which the punishment is death or life imprisonment, and the evidence of guilt is great.
(2) The defendant is charged with a felony involving an act of violence against another person, the evidence of guilt is great, and the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the person’s release poses a substantial threat of physical violence to any person and that no conditions of release will reasonably prevent the physical violence.
Unless a person is held without bail for these reasons, the Court should release the person on personal recognizance.
The Court may also require execution of a performance bond, in other words, it may require bail. The decision on whether to require a person to post bail depends on the risk that the individual will flee the jurisdiction or will fail to appear in court for trial. If there is a risk of flight or nonappearance, bail is imposed. Setting bail provides a motivation for a person to appear in court because if he or she does not the bail may be forfeited to the state.
If the court does not believe that bail itself will ensure the person will show up, it may also impose conditions of release to ensure appearance in court. The Court may also impose conditions of release to protect the public.
Pre-conviction imprisonment is costly and potentially unfair to those without the financial means to post bail. Individuals can be held because they cannot afford bail. Being detained for lack of bail can have a number of negative consequences. An individual so held can lose his or her job or housing. The individual will be at a disadvantage in building his or her defense. In certain circumstances, a person unable to post bail may enter a plea agreement simply to get out of jail. In addition, detaining individuals imposes substantial costs to the state.
In light of these issues, the House Judiciary Committee has spent significant time assessing how to reform Vermont’s bail laws.
The result, H.503, would restrict the use of bail in certain limited circumstances and would reform the use of bail in the context of violations of conditions of probation.
I’ll first address the context of pretrial bail and then will discuss reforms to probation.
When a person is suspected of a crime by law enforcement, there are two possibilities. He or she may be arrested and detained before a judge decides whether there is probable cause to continue the case. Or, that person may be issued a citation to appear at the probable cause hearing. That is called “being cited into court,” and the defendant is not taken into custody.
If the person is cited into court, at the probable cause hearing a prosecutor may argue that bail should be posted based on criminal history or past nonappearances in court. H.503 would provide that an individual who is cited into court and, in fact, appears at the probable cause hearing cannot be required to post bail. Being cited into court rather than arrested shows that law enforcement has made the judgment that the person does not present a risk to public safety. The officer did not think it was necessary to arrest and lodge the person. If the person has made his or her initial appearance, this alleviates the concern regarding future nonappearance.
H.503 also changes the law related to individuals who are on probation and have violated their conditions of probation.
- “Probation” means a procedure where a person found guilty of a crime upon verdict or plea is released by the court, without confinement, subject to conditions imposed by the court and subject to the supervision of the Commissioner of Corrections. 28 V.S.A. § 201.
Under current law, if a probationer violates the terms of probation, a corrections officer may arrest that person. H.503 would provide that the corrections officer may cite the probationer into court rather than arrest and detain the probationer in prison. It also expands the opportunity for the probationer to be released on conditions of release and/or after posting bail.
These changes will allow a decrease in detention of individuals. It will free up prison beds and will allow cost savings in the criminal justice system while also continuing to protect public safety.
Section-by-section summary of H.503, An act relating to bail
Sec. 1 – Cited misdemeanors
- Prohibits the imposition of cash bail in cases where a person was cited for a misdemeanor.
- Subsection (b) of 13 VSA 7551 provides that “No bond may be imposed at the initial appearance of a person charged with a misdemeanor if the person was cited for the offense in accordance with Rule 3 of the Vermont Rules of Criminal Procedure. This subsection shall not be construed to restrict the court’s ability to impose conditions on such persons to reasonable ensure his or her appearance at future proceedings or to reasonably protect the public in accordance with section 7554 of this title.”
Sec. 2 – Violations of probation
- The bill’s change to subsection (2) of section 28 VSA 301 clarifies that a correctional officer may cite a person, instead of arresting him or her, if they suspect that person has violated a condition of his or her probation.
- In determining whether the probationer should be cited or arrested, the officer should consider whether issuance of a citation will reasonably assure appearance and protect the public.
- Taken together, subsections 4 and 5 modify when a court can release a probationer after violations of conditions of probation.
- Currently, a probationer has no right to bail or release, unless the person is on probation for a nonviolent misdemeanor or nonviolent felony and the probation violation did not constitute a new crime. Subsection (4) deletes the requirement that the probation violation did not constitute a new crime. This deletion works in tandem with new subsection 5(A).
- Subsection (5)(A) expands the opportunity for a probationer to be released back into the community if the court can set bail or conditions of release that will reasonably ensure the probationer’s appearance at future proceedings and conditions of release that will reasonably protect the public.
- If these preconditions are met, the Court shall release a probationer who is on probation for a nonviolent misdemeanor or nonviolent felony
- If these preconditions are met, the Court may release a probationer who is on probation for a violent misdemeanor or violent felony. Again, the release may occur only if the court finds that conditions of release will reasonably protect the public.
Sec. 3 – Pretrial communications
- Requires the Court Administrator, State Attorneys, Defender General, and the Vermont Chapter of the ACLU to work together and with other interested parties to examine options for facilitating pretrial communication between the courts and defendants. The goal of this effort is to find options that reduce the risk of nonappearance by defendants.
- During testimony, we learned that states that have implemented notification systems have decreased nonappearance at court hearings. We determined, however, that further analysis of pretrial communication improvements or notification systems was necessary before we take any action on such an initiative.
- The group is to report its recommendations to the Committees on Judiciary by 10/15/17.
On average, our prisons are holding, pretrial, 380 to 400 individuals daily. 75 to 100 of these individuals are being held for violations of probation. This bill takes a step toward reducing these numbers in situations where public safety can be ensured and the risk of nonappearance has been addressed.
Judiciary Committee Update
In the past week, the Judiciary Committee has continued its effort to reform Vermont’s criminal justice system through initiatives to reduce incarceration rates, recidivism, and the collateral consequences of having a criminal record while ensuring public safety. The Committee passed a number of bills related to this effort.
H.213 advances the goal of providing access to treatment courts in the criminal division of the Superior Court. In an extensive findings section, the bill explains how such courts work and the benefits they achieve, including reducing recidivism. The bill would establish an Adult Treatment Courts Special Fund to expand geographic access to such courts. In addition, it would establish a Mobile Adult Treatment Court Pilot Program to provide access to treatment dockets in multiple counties across the State. Funding for the effort would have to be established by the money committees, but the bill includes suggested funding sources including a surcharge on requests for criminal history records from the Vermont Crime Information System.
H.503 would reform Vermont’s bail and probation laws. It would restrict imposition of an appearance bond at the initial court appearance of a person cited for certain misdemeanors. In addition, it would significantly change the process of summons and arrests of probationers who have violated conditions of probation. Rather than always arresting a probationer who has violated conditions, a correctional officer would have the option to cite the individual into court. Also at arraignment, the court will have the option to impose bail and/or conditions of release on an individual who has violated conditions of probation rather than continued detention as is currently required.
H.308 would establish a committee of legislators to reorganize and reclassify Vermont’s criminal statutes. In the 2013-14 legislative session, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 61, which created a working group to review all of Vermont’s criminal penalties and its sentencing structure. The group recommended a structure that included 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. H.308 would allow for the next step in providing a consistent and rational criminal code in Vermont. The committee’s primary task would be to propose placement of each of Vermont’s over 850 criminal offenses into one of the classification offense categories. The proposal of the committee would be taken up in the 2018 legislative session.
Reducing Collateral Consequences of Convictions
This past Thursday, the House passed a bill related to expungement. Vermont Digger covered the story.
The following is my report to the House, delivered on Wednesday:
H.171 addresses one aspect of Criminal Justice Reform.
By Criminal Justice Reform, I mean efforts to reduce incarceration, recidivism, and the collateral consequences of having a criminal record. Through such reform, we are able to help those caught up in the criminal justice system once again become productive, contributing members of society.
H.171 relates to one aspect of Criminal Justice Reform. The bill would amend laws that relate to the collateral consequences of having a criminal record.
Individuals who plead guilty or are convicted of an offense often suffer additional legal consequences beyond incarceration, probation, and fines. These are referred to as the collateral consequences of having a criminal record. Such consequences 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;
receiving a harsher sentence if convicted of another offense in the future;
or being unable to serve in the military or on a jury.
One method to remove these collateral consequences, is to get rid of the record of the criminal conviction through a process called expungement. Expungement involves erasing a person’s criminal record. As an alternative, an individual’s record can be sealed. In that case, the record still exists, but the result is the same.
When a person’s criminal record is expunged or sealed, the person is treated in all respects as if he or she had never been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for the offense.
To have one’s record expunged or sealed, an individual can file a petition in the Court’s Criminal Division. Certain requirements must be met for the petition to be granted.
First, the person must have been convicted of a qualifying crime. A qualifying crime includes any misdemeanor offense that is not:
- a listed crime
- a prostitution-related crime
- crimes involving sexual exploitation of children
- violations of a protective order
- or a predicate offense (offenses for which one would be subject to increased penalties for repeat offenses, including DUI, domestic assault, stalking).
Also three felonies are qualifying crimes: Unlawful mischief, grand larceny, and burglary, as long as it was not into an occupied dwelling.
Second, a waiting period has to have elapsed since the person successfully completed the terms and conditions of his or her sentence. The length of the waiting period depends on whether the person has been convicted of a new crime after the conviction for the qualifying crime.
Third, the petitioner has to have paid off any restitution ordered by the Court.
Section by Section Analysis
Sections 1 and 2 amend provisions related to the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction act that was enacted in 2013.
Section 1 relates to a provision of this law that ensures offenders receive notice of the collateral consequences of pleading guilty to a crime. It also provides notice that one can obtain relief from collateral consequences. This bill adds a provision requiring notice of the availability of expungement at the time an offender enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.
Section 2 relates to a provision that notifies individuals upon completion of their sentence of collateral consequences and ways to obtain relief from those consequences upon completion of one’s sentence. Subsection (a)(4) adds a provision requiring notice of the availability of expungement. Subsection (d) adds a similar notice provision in cases where an individual receives a penalty involving a fine only.
Section 3 adds a qualifying crime to the expungement law. It adds violations related to obtaining and procuring drugs through fraud or deceit. Addiction often is behind this particular crime.
Section 4 relates to the procedure for obtaining expungement
Subsection (b) involves the situation where a person has not been convicted of a crime arising out of a new incident since the person was convicted of the qualifying crime.
Current law requires a court to explicitly find that expungement would be in the interest of justice. Subsection (b)(1) changes the presumption, stating that “unless the court finds that expungement would not be in the interest of justice” it should grant the petition so long as the other conditions are met. In other words, it would presumably be in the interest of justice to rid a person of his or her criminal record, unless the Court affirmatively decides otherwise.
The first condition involves the amount of time that must have elapsed since the date the person successfully completed the terms and conditions of the sentence or probation. Subsection (b)(1)(A) reduces the waiting period to three years from ten years.
Section (c) effectively extends the waiting period if the person has been convicted of a misdemeanor since the person was convicted of the qualifying crime.
(c)(1) once again changes the presumption related to the interest of justice.
Under (c)(1)(A), the waiting period to be eligible for expungement is reduced to five years from 20 years.
The section relates to situations where someone has been convicted of another crime before the three-year period under subsection (b) has run. If the petitioner commits a felony, then he or she is no longer entitled to expungement of the previous qualifying crime. This is set forth in subsection (c)(1)(B). If the petitioner is convicted of a new misdemeanor before the 3-year waiting period has run under subsection (b), an additional three-year period is tacked on to the waiting period from the time the person completes the sentence for the subsequent misdemeanor conviction.
Next, the bill repeals a long section of the current law. In 2015, the legislature added a procedure to provide an earlier opportunity for expungement for individuals who committed a qualifying crime prior to reaching 25 years of age. A number of additional requirements were placed on these individuals to be able to qualify for expungement. Keeping these requirements would be inconsistent with the other amendments to the expungement law in H.171. If this provision remained, individuals who commited their offense when they were 25 years old or older would be able to seek expungement after three or five years, without any additional requirements. Individuals 25 years old and under would have to wait five years and fulfill other requirements. The bill would provide the same opportunity for expungement regardless of the age when the offense was committed.
New subsection (d), formally subsection (e), relates to individuals seeking expungement of a criminal record involving an offense for which the underlying conduct is no longer prohibited by law or designated as a criminal offense. Again, as in the previous provisions, the subsection changes the presumption related to the interest of justice. Also, it shortens the waiting period. Instead of waiting one year after completion of a sentence or supervision for the offense, an individual can seek expungement as soon as the sentence or supervision is completed if the offense is no longer a crime.
Section 5 of the Bill relates to how long someone who has had his or her petition denied must wait to reapply for expungement. Current law provides a waiting period of five years. The bill provides that a petitioner can reapply after one year or a shorter period if authorized by the Court.
Section 6 addresses the automation of the expungement process. It is our desire to make the expungement process run more efficiently. The courts are moving towards implementing an automated case management system. Section 6 instructs the Court Administrator to evaluate and report on the feasibility of automating the expungement and sealing process through this case management system or through other methods.
Section 7 is an additional notification provision. It requires the Attorney General to provide public education and awareness regarding the availability of the expungement petition process. This provision recognizes that the notification provisions that occur at the entry of a plea or at the completion of a sentence will not reach those who already have served their sentence.
Section 8 states that it is the legislative intent to continue examining this issue, particularly through considering whether to expand the range of offenses eligible for expungement.
Section 9 provides that the act would take effect on passage.
We heard from:
The State’s Attorney, Windsor County
Clerk of State Courts
Staff Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union
Executive Director, Center for Crime Victim Services
Chief Superior Judge, Office of Chief Superior Judge
Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs
Defender Generals Office
Professor of the Vermont Law School
Chief of Trial Court Operations, Office of Court AdministratorDirector,
Vermont Crime Information Center
Associate Director of Public Policy, VT Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence
The vote of the Judiciary Committee was 10-0-1.
In closing, this bill will provide many individuals the opportunity to remove barriers to their becoming productive, contributing residents of Vermont.
On Thursday, when the Bill was up for a final vote, I dealt with two amendments. Also, I dealt with a concern that had been raised related to whether repeat offenders are treated too leniently. Here is my response to that latter concern:
Repeat offenders question:
The statute carves out all convictions that the legislature has determined warrant increased penalties for repeat offenses. These are so-called predicate offenses. One cannot obtain expungement for a conviction if it qualifies as a predicate offense.
The Judge also has two opportunities in the law to address such situations: It can find that expungement is not in the interest of justice. Or it can seal the record instead of expunging it. Under section 7607(c)(2), a Court or prosecution may use the sealed criminal history record for future criminal investigations or prosecutions without limitation.
One of the purposes of expungement is to give a person a better chance at stability in housing and employment, which can reduce the incidence of someone recidivating. The chance to obtain stability by obtaining housing or a job is undermined by one having a criminal record.
The bill balances the cost of the infrequent circumstance where someone may game the system against the benefit for the many individuals who can again become productive citizens.
Criminal Justice Reform
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.
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