Legislative Update 4/21/2014

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Apr 22, 2014 No Comments ››

After a busy week debating tax policy on the House floor, I have been back in my committee working on Senate bills and towards adjournment.

S.295: Pretrial Service/Heroin Response.  The Judiciary Committee is reviewing S.295, referred to as the “pre-trial services bill.”  In general, the bill attempts to address the growing heroin problem in the state by developing a more effective criminal justice response that substitutes or at least includes treatment and diverts individuals where appropriate from the criminal justice system (incarceration).

S.295 recognizes that addiction is a publish health issue, and therefore establishes a means to distinguish between high- and low-risk/needs individuals, in order to ensure that those who need treatment get it, and that we don’t respond with an inappropriate level of supervision or restriction that will increase rather than decrease criminal behavior. Thus those arrested for drug-related crimes would be offered the opportunity for a risk-and-needs assessment and a subsequent opportunity to participate in pre-trial services where appropriate.  Justice officers or JOs (called “compliance monitors” in the bill currently) would support individuals in getting to treatment, showing up for check-ins, and other required activities.  Participation will be voluntary and also does not guarantee any particular outcome, but the state’s attorney, defense, and judge at sentencing will consider successful completion of such a program.

More specifically, it increases some penalties: for importing heroin (and perhaps other drugs) into the state for distribution and sale, and for burglary.  In the latter case, it creates a tier of penalties that express our belief that breaking into a home is bad enough, but doing so with a weapon is worse, and threatening or harming someone in the process is worst of all. [Note: although we acknowledge that it’s unlikely that the behavior of addicts will be much informed by this change, it does send a message to the public that the legislature is responsive to homeowners’ increased fear of “home invasions.”]

We discussed t why just heroin?  We know it is the very important current problem, but as we draft drug policy, we need to consider how drugs change dependent upon demand.  We remember about 4 years ago listening to testimony from MA law enforcement who told us at that time our drug problem was Oxycontin, but before long it will become heroin due to the low cost of heroin, that we would see addicts switching due to cost.  This in fact has played out. We will continue this discussion about if to broaden the bill.

To come up with a good bill requires balancing the needs to sanction an undesirable behavior, punish infractions, and support what is recognized as a more effective response to crime when it’s driven by addiction. The Human Services and Institutions and Corrections committees also are reviewing sections of the bill, relating to medication assisted treatment and the oversight of the “JOs,” respectively.

We are also considering the administration’s new proposal. There is concern among community treatment providers that a flood of new clients will come into treatment.  This new proposal hopes to address this by narrowing who is eligible for the pre-trial services and to create three groups-misdemeanor drug cases that have been cited into court, nonviolent felony offenses cited into court and lodged defendants (detainees). The groups would be rolled out in three phases over a year into the program.  We will continue to discuss this proposal.

S.287: involuntary treatment and medication.  This has been a difficult bill.  The committee listened to testimony with House Human Services as to is there a problem, if so what is it and does this bill address it.  Our committee felt that both sides of the issue are very compelling and for most of us there is a need for a bill.  We are working on crafting a bill that recognizes the need for flexibility in individual cases, expedite the process when the need is demonstrated, allow for patient involvement and autonomy and not burden our judicial system. Current law was written when Vermont had one psychiatric hospital-the State Hospital. We are now faced with a post Irene situation where capacity, multiple facilities and geographics challenge current practice.

Bias Free Policing

We have been working with law enforcement to follow up on an act we passed in 2012 requiring police departments state-wide to adopt bias free policing policies.  We discovered that many have not.  We are therefore considering a bill that would require departments to adopt either the Vermont State Police or Attorney General’s policy.  We are looking at a bill that would have the Criminal Justice Training Council audit the adoption of policies.  Currently, it audits compliance with training requirements.  The Human Rights Commission currently has jurisdiction to enforce a compliant that a department has failed to adopt or follow a policy.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, for law enforcement to function effectively, it is critical that persons such as victims of and witnesses to crimes feel free to share information about crimes without fear of jeopardy to that person’s health, safety and significant consequences like deportation.  Sexual identity, disability, victim of domestic violence or assault, immigration, etc. are types of personal information that law enforcement should neither ask nor disclose unless for a lawful law enforcement purposes. The AG’s policy is a don’t ask don’t tell policy.

S.184 and S.297 Innocence Protection: we passed these bills out of committee. I will be reporting them to the House. The bills include law enforcement’s adoption of best practices for eyewitness identification and custodial interrogation. Both strive to help our criminal justice system meet the goals it was created for-to hold those guilty accountable, protect the innocent, help crime victims and ensure that innocent people do not go to prison for a crime he or she didn’t commit, thereby leaving the perpetrator at large to commit more crimes.

GMO Bill

We are discussing along with House Agriculture how to move forward on the GMO bill as it passed the Senate.