House OKs defendant risk yardsticks
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | May 02,2014
MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill designed to help divert low-risk offenders with substance abuse problems into treatment rather than jail.
The legislation would provide tools to courts and prosecutors to assess the risks and needs of defendants.
The House version, passed on a voice vote Thursday evening with dozens of members absent, differs from a Senate-backed version passed last month, however, and is likely headed for a conference committee.
Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the legislation would provide voluntary alternative justice options for offenders driven by substance abuse. The bill, Lippert said, would have “one of the most profound impacts on the criminal justice system for many years.” It will “decrease the likelihood of multiple returns to the criminal justice system” by offenders due to substance abuse, he said.
“We intend to increase public safety in the state of Vermont by providing a new system of pretrial services,” Lippert said.
His committee crafted the bill along with the House Human Services, and Corrections and Institutions committees.
It calls for county prosecutors to offer both pretrial screening and treatment programs to defendants before they are arraigned, when they are considered most likely to be willing to address their addiction. The legislation is based on a program in Chittenden County that has seen success, according to State’s Attorney TJ Donovan.
The risk assessment tools are intended to help judges and prosecutors gather more information about each defendant when trying to determine if bail is warranted.
The Senate Judiciary Committee began working on the bill in January immediately after Gov. Peter Shumlin used nearly his entire State of the State address to highlight a growing opiate and heroin problem. The governor declared a “full-blown heroin crisis” in Vermont during the speech, prompting national headlines and conversation about heroin use in Vermont and across the country.
Administration officials worked closely with Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to address the issue outlined in Shumlin’s speech.
The House bill takes a slower, phased approach to the risk assessment and needs screenings, looking to avoid a rush of offenders entering the programs. Sears said he will push for a more immediate launch of the assessments.
“To me, slowing down the rollout is the wrong thing to do,” he said. “Slowing down the rollout when we have an epidemic just doesn’t make sense.”
The House version also scaled back new crimes with enhanced penalties for drug trafficking and burglary with a weapon created by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We believe it should be an aggravating factor rather than a new crime created,” Lippert said.
Under the Senate version, people caught bringing heroin into the state with the purpose of selling it would see longer prison terms. The House makes that an aggravating factor with discretion left to judges in sentencing.
“I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t concur with us regarding … the new crime,” Sears said. “Clearly, I think you need to do more than that with the trafficking issue.”
Sears said he plans to seek a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators can hash out differences between their versions of the bill.