2015 House Judiciary Committee Wrap-Up

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Jun 5, 2015 No Comments ›› maxinegrad

Vermont State Capital BuildingThank you for giving me the opportunity to represent you. It is an honor to serve as Chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. This is the first of a series of updates summarizing the Legislature’s work. Here, I will focus on my committee work. The Legislature made considerable progress in enhancing community safety while protecting individual liberties.

Fighting Fraud

False Claims Act: I was the lead sponsor of this bill that is now law. The Vermont False Claims Act improves the state’s ability to recover penalties from persons who defraud state government through Medicaid, pension, construction and other fraudulent use of taxpayers’ money. The state stands to collect significant money under the law.

Home Improvement Fraud: I created this committee bill in response to the Attorney General’s office. Act 13 makes it easier for prosecutors to prove that a contractor has engaged in home improvement fraud. We worked closely with the Vermont Association of Contractors on this.

Repairing our Criminal Justice System

House Judiciary took testimony on a bill that would 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, and expand parole eligibility for individuals who have serious medical conditions. Although the bill didn’t pass this session, such issues will likely be at the forefront of the committee’s work next session.

Collateral Consequences of Conviction

S.115 recently signed into law reduces the adverse collateral consequences for individuals who have committed certain nonviolent crimes and who have served their time and paid any Court ordered restitution. The law also provides an expedited process for expungement of crimes committed by an individual who was 25 years old or younger at the time of the qualifying offense.

Internet Protections

The Legislature passed a law that would make nonconsensual disclosure of sexually explicit images unlawful. The crime is popularly but sometimes misleadingly referred to as “revenge porn” because not all perpetrators are motivated by vengeance. Many act out of a desire for profit, notoriety, or entertainment. Creating explicit images within the context of a private, intimate relationship is an increasingly common practice, but often occurs with the expectation of privacy.

Victims experience a loss of reputation and opportunity, and are frequently threatened with sexual assault, stalked, harassed, fired from jobs, and forced to change schools. Sixteen states have such laws and bills have been introduced in another 21 this year.

Sex Offender Registry

I was the lead sponsor of Act 1 that requires inmates to report to the Sex Offender Registry prior to their release from a correctional facility. It addresses offenders who are “maxing out” their sentences and are leaving a corrections facility without any further supervision or contact with the Department of Corrections. This was an important issue for the Mad River Valley.

Juvenile Justice

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. The Judiciary Committee has recognized this as it has delved into issues related to juvenile justice.

The Legislature passed a bill that prohibits sentences of life without parole for a person who committed his or her offense as a minor. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences its children to life imprisonment without the possibility of release or parole. This bill recognizes that, because their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders have the unique ability to be rehabilitated. The bill does not guarantee release. Rather, it provides the opportunity for an offender to demonstrate rehabilitation to a parole board. This bill, now law, will ensure that Vermont is in compliance with a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court Eighth Amendment decisions that prohibit cruel and unusual punishment.

In addition, the House passed H.95, relating to jurisdiction over delinquency proceedings by the Family Court. The objective of the bill is that States Attorneys file more cases involving juveniles in the Family Division where certain confidentiality and other procedural protections are in place, rather than in adult criminal court, which lacks such protections. The Senate has not taken action on this bill, however States Attorneys report they will have policies in place reflecting this intent.

Access to Weapons

The Legislature passed into law S.141 that places restrictions on the possession or purchase of guns by certain persons. The bill makes gun possession illegal under state law for people convicted of violent felonies or have been found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, Incompetent to Stand Trial, or has been adjudicated by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. This is already illegal under federal law, and this would make Vermont the final state to adopt a parallel law. The bill also creates a process by which those who have been adjudicated mentally ill to apply to have their ability to possess a firearm restored. This brings Vermont on firmer Second Amendment footing.

After changes were made to the bill in my committee, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs (Vermont Chapter of the NRA) publicly removed their opposition to the legislation.

Forfeiture

The Legislature passed a bill that will offset certain law enforcement costs and provide revenue to the State through creating a procedure for forfeiture of property associated with certain regulated drug possession, sale, and trafficking violations and with dog fighting. The bill allows the state to seek forfeiture of such property after an individual has been convicted of the underlying crime.

Collection of Child Support

By amending the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act Act 16 improves the enforcement of Vermont child support orders and ensures that children residing in Vermont will receive the financial support due from parents, wherever they reside.

Child Protection

S.7: The Legislature revised the law to designate lewd and lascivious conduct with a child as a violent offense for the purpose of bail determination. This change ensures that denial of bail is an option in cases where the defendant is charged with lewd and lascivious acts with a child, 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.

S.9: I was glad to provide leadership on one of this session’s most important bills. S.9 will go far in improving how we protect our children by requiring better communication between law enforcement, DCF and the courts, clarifying and strengthening the mandatory child abuse reporting law, focusing on the best interests of children rather than a rigid placement hierarchy, and enhancing the penalties for those who harm children with death resulting, serious bodily injury or sexual acts.