Although Vermont is one of the safest states in the country, its citizens still rightfully expect the legislature to continue to prioritize public safety. In considering bills that address public safety, the Judiciary Committee must also ensure that the law does not unduly infringe upon individual liberties and freedoms. The Committee seeks to fulfill Vermonters’ expectations that they will have ready and equitable access to justice, that individuals will receive due process if their rights and liberties may be curtailed, and that the law will protect vulnerable citizens. In addition to balancing these often-competing goals, the Committee focuses on many other aspects of the State’s judicial and legal affairs.
This session, to improve public safety, the legislature enacted a number of laws addressed by the Judiciary Committee. Act 1 strengthens aspects of the Sex Offender Registry, ensuring that a sex offender reports updated information for the Registry to the Department of Public Safety prior to his or her release from a correctional facility. H.105 makes it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent and with intent to harm, even if the subject had consented to the taking of the photograph or video. S.102 assists law enforcement in its efforts to combat drug trafficking by modifying rules related to the forfeiture of assets used in perpetrating certain drug-related crimes. The Act also expands forfeiture rules related to dog fighting. Act 14 prohibits violent felons from owning firearms and requires state courts to submit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”) the names of those whom a court has adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness.
While addressing these efforts to improve public safety, the legislature was careful to protect individual liberties. S.13 (a separate bill than Act 1) ensures that Sex Offender Registry information listed on the Internet is accurate. It also provides a mechanism for individuals to challenge the accuracy of information or their inclusion on the Registry. While S.102 allows forfeiture of assets used in the perpetration of certain crimes, it does not allow for such forfeiture to occur unless an individual is actually convicted of that crime. This contrasts with the federal forfeiture law, which allows for forfeiture when an individual is charged with certain crimes, whether or not convicted. Act 14 provides a procedure for individuals to have their name removed from the NICS database.
Criminal convictions often result in consequences for Vermonters beyond court-imposed penalties and sentences, particularly for felons. For example, even after serving their time and paying any imposed penalties, individuals who have been convicted suffer from an inability to obtain housing or employment due to their criminal records. In addition, incarceration for non-violent offenders is often costly and counterproductive.
Collateral consequences and counterproductive incarceration are particularly problematic for juvenile offenders. Current science shows that the brain continues to change and mature throughout childhood and adolescence. Due to the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and misread or misinterpret social cues, and less likely to think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions. They are, in short, more likely than adults to make bad decisions and to violate criminal law. So long as their record follows them, juvenile offenders will suffer the consequences of their errors long after they have reached adulthood and completed the court-imposed punishment for the crime.
The legislature has enacted law that seeks to alleviate the problem of collateral consequences and counterproductive incarceration, particularly for juveniles. S.115 establishes a quicker path to expunging their criminal record for individuals who committed their crimes when younger than 25. H.62 prohibits sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. Each of these bills await the Governor’s signature. The House also passed H.95, which seeks to ensure that States Attorneys file more cases in the Family Division of state court rather than in the Criminal Division when those cases involve juveniles. If filed in the Family Division, the juvenile’s record will not be public, thus collateral consequences from the conviction will not travel with him or her into adulthood. The Senate did not act on this bill in this session.
In addition, the Judiciary has taken testimony on a bill that seeks broader reform of Vermont’s criminal justice system. The bill would, among other changes, reduce the number of crimes punishable as felonies; eliminate jail time for non-violent offenders; prevent people from being kept in jail past the end of their sentence due to lack of housing; expand parole eligibility for individuals who have serious medical conditions, were sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile, or are 65 years of age or older; and eliminate incarceration for violations of parole conditions that are not new crimes. Although the bill was not advanced in this session, such issues will likely be at the forefront of Judiciary’s work in the next session, when it continues to seek to rationalize the penalties for the various crimes in Vermont law, reduce unnecessary and costly incarceration rates, and minimize the collateral consequences of conviction.
During the current session, Judiciary also worked to improve protection of children. The Committee assisted with a major initiative of the General Assembly in light of the tragic deaths of two infants last summer. It took testimony on aspects of S.9 that related to criminal justice. Further, in H.86, the legislature enacted amendments to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, which assists with the enforcement of child support orders regardless of where a child lives.
The legislature also enacted a State False Claims Act (H.120), which provides for penalties for those who knowingly submit false or fraudulent claims to the State. Full enforcement of this law should bring revenues to the State while also providing a further deterrent to those who would defraud the government. Addressing a separate type of fraud, the legislature also amended laws related to home improvement. Act 13 makes it easier for prosecutors to prove that a contractor has engaged in home improvement fraud.
In short, the Judiciary Committee had a busy and productive session.
In the past week, the House passed a variety of bills that had been voted out of the Judiciary Committee. One such bill would ensure that States Attorneys file cases involving juveniles in the Family Division of state court, where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than in adult criminal court, which lacks such protections (H.95). Another bill would make it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent, even if the subject had consented to the taking of the photograph or video (H.105 as amended). A third bill would make it easier to prosecute home improvement fraud (H.483).
The Judiciary Committee took testimony on a bill passed out of the Senate that would modify procedures related to placement on the Sex Offender Registry (S.13). Currently, the Department of Public Safety administers the Registry, making decisions as to the posting of an offender’s information to the Registry before his release from incarceration. The bill would instead have the court make determinations related to an offender’s inclusion on the Registry at the time of sentencing, deciding whether the offender should be placed on the Registry and, if so, for how long. In addition, the bill provides a procedure to allow individuals to challenge the information on, or to request removal from, the Registry. These changes were prompted by audits of Registry’s error-rate, which were performed to determine whether address information would be included on the Internet version of the Registry. The Committee is considering what Registry error rates would be acceptable to allow an individual’s address information to be placed on the Internet Registry, which would be widely available to the public.
In addition, the Committee has taken up a bill relating to criminal justice reform (H.221). This bill would, among other changes, reduce the number of crimes punishable as felonies; eliminate jail time for non-violent offenders; prevent people from being kept in jail at the end of their sentence due to lack of housing; expand parole eligibility for individuals who have serious medical conditions, were sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile, or are 65 years of age or older; and eliminate incarceration for violations of parole conditions that are not new crimes. The overall aim of the bill is to reduce unnecessary incarceration and thus reduce Vermont’s prison population and its associated costs. It represents a start in updating the 19th and 20th century solutions in Vermont’s criminal code that are currently used to address our 21st century problems.
Judiciary also took testimony on the enforcement provisions of the water bill (H.35). It has made recommendations to the Committee on Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources suggesting changes to those provisions of the bill. In addition, Judiciary started its consideration of the Child Protection Bill, (S.9), participating in a joint hearing with the Human Services Committee.
Judiciary took testimony from and worked with the State Court Administrator and Chief Superior Judge to evaluate efficiencies that could lead to savings in the Justice System. For example, the state courts are considering an initiative to start conducting arraignments by video conferencing, which would produce savings from decreased need to transport defendants and for Court security. The Committee provided its various proposals related to Court savings to the Committees on Ways and Means and Appropriations.
The past week in the legislature has been a full one on many different fronts. I worked on issues that came before the House Judiciary Committee, tracked the action on education funding reform, introduced my own bill related to collective bargaining between school boards and teachers associations, continued to follow potential legislation addressing the cleanup of Lake Champlain and climate change, and tried to continue to be aware in a general sense of the many other issues that are coming before the legislature.
Over the past two weeks, the House Judiciary Committee has heard testimony on and delved into issues related to juvenile justice. It considered H.62, which would prohibit sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. Currently no inmates are serving such a sentence in Vermont. Nevertheless, enactment of the bill would recognize that, because their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders are less culpable and have the unique ability to be rehabilitated. Eliminating this harsh sentence would not excuse a juvenile’s behavior, but would provide the opportunity for such an offender to demonstrate rehabilitation to a parole board.
House Judiciary also considered H.95, which relates to jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings by the Family Division of the Superior Court. The objective of the bill is to channel more cases involving juveniles into the Family Division of state court, where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than adult criminal court, which lacks such protections. The Committee received mixed testimony, the primary concern being whether the Family Division would have the resources to hear these additional cases. Currently, the judicial branch, and in particular the Family Division of state court, lack sufficient resources to keep up with caseloads that have been increasing due to the fallout from the opiate addiction problem in Vermont. Accordingly, we are paying close attention to this resource crunch when considering bills that would expand the number of cases that come before the state courts, particularly the Family Division.
During the course of hearing testimony on these bills, the Committee received interesting and enlightening testimony related to brain development. Current science on this topic supports our efforts to ensure that Vermont’s criminal justice system is appropriately handling juvenile offenders.
The Committee also considered H.105, which would amend the State’s laws related to voyeurism to impose criminal sanctions on individuals who disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals online without their consent, even if the photograph or video itself was taken with consent – so-called revenge porn. Websites created specifically for this type of pornography sometimes include a victim’s name, address, and links to social media profiles with the images, and some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed. H.105 is different than laws adopted in most other states in that it also imposes sanctions on dissemination of digitally-altered sexually explicit images of another person without their knowledge and consent. The Committee will hear additional testimony in the coming week, including testimony addressing concerns related to First Amendment protections, particularly with respect to digitally-altered images.
House Judiciary also voted H.86 out of committee. H.86 will amend the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”), originally enacted in Vermont in 1996. The Act sets forth jurisdictional rules and determines which state’s law applies when more than one state is involved in establishing, enforcing or modifying a child support or spousal order, or is establishing a child’s parentage. UIFSA requires that every state defer to child support orders entered by courts of the child’s home state. Modifications to a support order may occur only in the home state unless the child and parents no longer live there. Custodial parents may request either directly or through the state agency responsible for child support that another state enforce the support order. I will take on the responsibility of reporting out this bill to the full House this coming week. That involves explaining the bill on the floor of the House and responding to any questions.
In addition to my work on the Judiciary Committee, this past Thursday I introduced H.102, “an act relating to labor relations for teachers and administrators,” which is a bill that I have worked on since early December. In an article that will be published this Thursday in The Other Paper, I describe my work on that bill. I’ll post the article next week.
On a lighter note, this past week I discovered that the Statehouse Cafeteria serves up excellent homemade chocolate chip cookies. I already knew that their chef makes the best cake doughnuts in Vermont, if not in all of New England. I, however, am trying to behave and keep my consumption of these delights to a minimum or else I will put on an extra ten pounds by the end of the session.