Committee advances bill on alternative justice services


Lawmakers last week advanced a bill intended to give courts and attorneys more information about people who come in contact with the system, with the intent of reducing recidivism by better understanding why those people might be breaking the law.

The bill encourages counties to develop precharge programs to address substance abuse or mental health needs of people who are arrested.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 to favorably report out S.295, "An act relating to pretrial services, risk assessments and criminal justice programs." Its next stop is the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

The bill's premise is that the risk and needs of a person charged with or convicted of a crime should determine which strategies are appropriate to address the reasons that caused that person to commit a crime.

The assessment that the bill calls for will determine whether a person is at risk for not appearing in court or might be a threat to public safety.

That knowledge will help the court set bail and conditions of release and inform decisions, the bill says. At present, state prosecutors do not have a uniform method for assessing what bail conditions to seek.

The court may use the results of the assessment and screening to order the person to comply with any of a list of conditions, including meeting with a compliance monitor, participating in a clinical assessment by a substance abuse treatment provider or attending treatment.

The bill creates a court-based system of "compliance monitors" who will report to a judge or prosecutor, before a trial, about a person's compliance with any prescribed community-based treatment, rehabilitation services or other conditions of release.

The proposed law is one of the committee's signature bills this session and a part of Gov. Peter Shumlin's effort to address what he has called an opiate addiction "crisis."

The bill, in essence, combines positive aspects of existing alternative justice programs in Vermont and launches them into a statewide initiative. The governor in his budget this year set aside $760,000 to kickstart more programs.

As they crafted this bill, lawmakers were careful to make clear that these programs do not grant guilty criminals a "get-out-of-jail-free" card.

The legislation also establishes stricter penalties for certain types of burglaries, a measure lawmakers said is intended to send a message to those who steal to fund their drug habits.

Tacked on to the bill are several unrelated amendments, including one aimed at stopping diversion of buprenorphine, a narcotic used to treat addiction that is sometimes sold on the street alongside heroin and other opiates.

Discussion on Friday morning centered around whether that amendment will actually discourage doctors from wanting to treat addicts. Doctors said treating addiction is already challenging and daunting to primary care physicians and new regulations will not help.

The bill requires risk assessment and needs screenings for people charged with less-serious crimes. For those charged with the 31 violent and more serious crimes listed in section 5301 of Title 13 of state statutes, the needs screening and risk assessment is optional.

Simply because a person is assessed or screened does not entitle him or her to any specific outcome or mean charges will not be filed.

The bill charges the Department of Corrections with selecting tools to use in the risk and needs assessment and with contracting for or otherwise providing the pretrial services. The system should be ready to operate by September, the bill says.

In addition to pretrial services, the bill directs state's attorneys and sheriffs to develop alternative justice programs at all stages of the criminal justice system, starting with police's everyday interactions with citizens to release of a prisoner back into the community.

The bill allows for prosecutors, at their discretion, to permit a person who has been arrested to participate in a precharge program that addresses substance abuse, mental health or community justice issues. Compliance monitors will also play a role in that process, the bill says.

Other sections of the bill address victim restitution and the transportation of heroin into the state.

The law adds an additional 10 years in prison and/or a fine of not more than $100,000 for someone proven to be knowingly transporting heroin into Vermont with the intent to sell or dispense it.

The burglary section of the bill creates tiers of stricter penalties that judges could use for people convicted of burglary while carrying a weapon, and for those convicted of burglarizing an occupied dwelling or while using or threatening to use force.

Another section of the bill deals with establishing clear dosage amounts in laws about unlawful possession and sale of narcotics.

In the section of the bill about buprenorphine diversion, lawmakers Friday removed a section that would have asked the Health Department to post on its website a list of doctors licensed to prescribe buprenorphine.

The last section clarifies a law about immunity for a person who seeks medical assistance for someone experiencing a drug overdose.


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