The Senate Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a broad bill aimed at diverting people from the criminal justice system and into drug treatment and other services.
The bill, S.295, also contains a section intended to help reduce the amount of Suboxone, an opiate treatment drug that is frequently diverted onto the street.
S.295 was the prime focus of the Senate Judiciary Committee this session. It also passed through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which tweaked the Suboxone section after extensive testimony from doctors and pharmacists. Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, presented the legislation to his fellow senators Wednesday afternoon.
"What I'm proud of is Vermont is admitting it has a problem and now it's trying to come up with solutions to that problem," Sears said.
The bill encourages state's attorneys to set up pre-trial programs that reach alleged criminals at a time when they are amenable to examining the underlying cause of their action and receiving services.
"There's nothing like a flashing blue light and handcuffs to get your attention that you might have a problem," said Sen. Ann Cummings, as she introduced the Health and Welfare Committee's amendments. Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the bill and asked for $760,000 in next year's budget to roll out pre-charge programs, as well as another tool: Risk assessment.
In a statement released on Thursday, he praised Sears and the Judiciary Committee for its work on the bill.
"At the same time, the bill will give our law enforcement better tools to fight drug dealers and the violent crime that too often accompanies the drug trade, helping to keep Vermonters safer while we also provide better treatment to those who are addicted," Shumlin said. "I look forward to working with the House as the legislation now moves to that chamber for consideration."
Separate from diversion, the bill establishes a risk assessment program so judges and prosecutors will have more information about a person when they decide how to set bail.
The assessment is intended to determine whether the person is dangerous or a risk of flight and provide a standardized tool across all counties.
The bill has many other sections, including stricter penalties for home invasion, something Sears said his constituents fear because of a purported increase in property crimes committed to fuel drug habits.
It also clarifies the so-called Good Samaritan law that was passed last year. That law protects someone who calls for medical help after a drug overdose from criminal prosecution. Legislators said there was a case in Addison County where that law was misinterpreted.
Another section stiffens the penalties for heroin trafficking. The bill must be passed a final time before it heads to the House.