MONTPELIER -- Vermont prosecutors were given a new tool Tuesday that will help them fight drug addiction by diverting some people into treatment rather than sending people to jail or into the courts.
Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law Tuesday that enables prosecutors the option of offering certain people treatment rather than jail and using a third party to assess whether a person arrested on drug charges would be eligible for the program or if they are a danger to society and should be sent to jail.
"If you’re someone that we maybe should be mad at, disappointed in but know could become a productive member of Vermont again, the prosecutor now has the option to say you will never go through the judicial process, we’re going to move you to recovery, we’re going to treat this like the disease that it is and try to work together to get you healthy again," Shumlin said during a signing ceremony in his Statehouse office in Montpelier.
The new law would also allow judges to have access to the same information so it could be used in the court process. It also strengthens penalties for drug trafficking and the use of weapons in homes during the commission of a drug crime.
The new law is part of a number of measures the governor called for during his January state of the state speech, which he focused entirely on Vermont’s problem with heroin and the abuse of other opiate drugs.
"For more than 40 years in the name of the war on drugs we have arrested and prosecuted, convicted and punished people who use drugs, believing that they are ‘other people,"’ said Robert Sand, a former prosecutor who is now a policy adviser for the Vermont Department of Public Safety.
The governor’s speech and the attention the Legislature has focused on the issue has helped change that, Sand said.
The attention on the issue shines "a bright, clean antiseptic light on this topic that lets us see with clarity, these are not other people, these are our people. This is us. We punish others, we find solutions for our own," Sand said.
The new state law is based in part on a program that began in Chittenden County in 2010.
Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan says the pilot program has already greatly reduced the number of re-offenders.
He said an outcome study of more than 700 participants over two years had a re-offense rate of 7 percent, well below the state’s general re-offense rate of about 40 percent.
"That 7 percent tells me something. People want to get help. They just don’t know how to do it," he said.
"People don’t want to be addicted to heroin, they just can’t find a way out of it."