The House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing on Wednesday to cover concerns surrounding public safety. Jennifer Morrison (Commissioner, Department of Public Safety) talked about the lack of accountability. Even those arrested note that Vermont has a reputation for being soft on crime and has a catch and release policy without any regard to the harm being done by repeat offenders. While police continue to do their job of seeking out and arresting criminals, their actions must be accompanied by consequences.
With regard to drugs, we need policies and strategies that reduce the demand. Supply-side will always be an issue but let’s focus on reducing the demand. Harm reduction strategies are a key piece of the policy but there is still a piece missing. According to Morrison, we need to answer questions like "what is the problem we are trying to solve? What is the scope of the issue and how do we diagnose the problems before we try to cure them?" She also believes we need to stop normalizing addiction and rebrand Vermont. Right now, according to her, our brand says we are open for business for drug dealers.
One part of the solution is to have strong cohesive communities. We also need to have treatments available at the time of arrest. Senator Sears said he wants to make sure that they have accurate and timely statistics, adding that he was not happy that Bennington County does not have any treatment centers.
Tucker Jones (Assistant General Counsel, Department of Public Service) added that we need to offer ‘on demand” treatment, we are not doing this now but should. Individuals get citations for 6 to 12 weeks after arrest. One thing which is very important that the State does not consider is the impact on the community and downtowns. They want to get more resources to the Judiciary so they can address some of these issues.
Tucker talked about repeat offenders, saying that persistent incidents with repeat behavior, which may not necessarily rise to a felony, make it hard on downtowns and communities. "Can’t we agree that this needs to be fixed?" he questioned. There is the discussion about bail in Vermont as well.
Chief Hoag (President Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police) talked about ‘the day in the life of a police officers.” Burglaries, thefts, disturbances, assaults/violence, and overdoses are common occurrences. Police officers are tasked with listening to victims, and it is clear people feel unsafe. Many do not go to commercial centers because of their fear. Accountability is key and there is no sense of accountability.
Teri Corsones (State Court Administrator) spoke about the case backlog in the legal system and noted that the backlogs existed pre-pandemic. There are five judge positions currently open, which is a problem. During the pandemic, jury trials were halted for over a year because there were inadequate HVAC systems in place. They created disposition guidelines to move the cases. Pending cases are reviewed on an on-going basis, but it is important to fill open positions so judges can be moved around the state to fill in where necessary. There are also inadequate court staffing levels.
Timothy Leuders-Dumontch (Legislative and Assistant Appellate Attorney) presented a power point about the percent of change nationally in violent crime and also focused on the number of behavioral health providers (or lack thereof) in Vermont. He also presented data on deaths due to overdoes by drug type in Vermont. In order of highest to lowest: Fentanyl, Cocaine, Oxycodone, Methamphetamine and Heroin. He also showed stats on number of reported and unreported thefts, car-jacking, aggravated assault and rape, etc.
It was noted that while opinions amongst individual State’s Attorneys may vary, the Executive Committee of State’s Attorneys and the Office of the Executive Director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs do not support removal of cash bail. They hear over and over from the public that it’s the “revolving door” of the courthouse. There is often confusion among community members concerning how and what bail is really for. It is not unusual (especially lately) to have a defendant rack up 10+ charges with many “failures to appear” in court. There has been an increase in cycles of noncompliance when defendants repeatedly violate conditions, commit new crimes, are arrested on a warrant, and are then released again on conditions with no bail.
It is important to remember that while the prosecutor may request bail, it is the Court that imposes bail. However, Courts may impose bail, or conditions, even without a request from the State. Cash bail remains a needed judicial tool to mitigate risk of flight from prosecution in those circumstances where conditions of release are unable to mitigate risk of flight.
Matthey Valerio (Defender General) provided an overview of the ‘covid backlog’ in 2022-2023 with particular focus on pending criminal cases in public defense. He noted that they are making progress, with cases down from 19,000 in 3/1/23 to 15,500 in 12/1/23
Total criminal cases pending in public defense – 5,228
Total pending juvenile cases in public defense – 867
Primary public defense lawyers – 35
Pending cases per lawyer – 174/attorney
Pre-pandemic average pending cases per lawyer – 85/attorney
Jones added that in this decade (2020 to 2029) opioid deaths will total 1.2M people in the United States if no new action is taken for addressing the epidemic. One of the persistent issues that communities are experiencing is repeat criminal behavior where an individual does not face meaningful conditions of release and the offense is just added to the list be addressed at the ultimate disposition of the case, sometimes months or years later. Right now the question becomes, according to Jones, what other constitutionally permissible legal mechanisms exist that can be used to quickly intervene and stop behavior that undermines public safety in a community and ensures compliance with court orders, well before a criminal adjudication occurs.