Vermont Attorney General takes over pretrial program


MONTPELIER >> The Vermont Attorney General's Office is taking over administration of the statewide pretrial services program.

The program, created by the Legislature in 2014, was initially overseen by the Department of Corrections.

The pretrial system is intended to gather information about mental health and substance abuse from people who have been arrested in hopes of diverting them into treatment if they need it as quickly as possible.

The statewide program is based on a Chittenden County program spearheaded by State's Attorney TJ Donovan, who is running for attorney general this year.

The legislation allowed flexibility for county state's attorneys on what degree they would opt in.

Annie Ramniceanu was appointed to head the program, which involved hiring 11 pretrial monitors who would work across Vermont's 14 county court systems. Monitors would be available to administer seven-question surveys to determine a defendant's treatment needs. The system began on Oct. 15 of last year.

Ramniceanu said that after discussions with the administration, the program was officially transferred from the DOC to the Attorney General's office on Sept. 1.

Ramniceanu said Thursday that the program's placement in the DOC was "always somewhat of an interesting fit." The attorney general's office already runs court diversion, which she said is somewhat akin to the "grandmother" of the pretrial movement.

"I think in many ways it makes sense for the further development of the program," Ramniceanu said.

In a statement, Gov. Peter Shumlin's deputy chief of staff Sue Allen said that the governor is a "strong supporter" of the programs. "He'll be pleased when both pre-charge and pretrial programs are fully subscribed across Vermont."

"The Governor also recognizes that these are complex changes that involve fourteen independent state's attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, police departments and sheriffs, as well as treatment providers," Allen wrote. "He recognizes that buy-in in each county is a process that may take longer in some places."

Willa Farrell, who currently directs the court diversion program within the Attorney General's Office, will now head the program.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell said he didn't know why the program was moved to his office.

The attorney general's office was approached by the administration and agreed to take the pretrial services under its authority. He does not expect to make any substantial changes to the program operation.

Sorrell acknowledged that there's some disconnect with how different county prosecutors choose to use the pretrial program.

"There's a bit of a herding cats situation there, but that's the way our system is set up right now," Sorrell said.

Sorrell said that his office maintains a positive and collaborative relationship with county prosecutors. He said he believes the attorney general's office is in a "good position" to work with state's attorneys on the program.

Critics say that the program has failed to reach its promised potential.

Defender General Matt Valerio said that outside of certain areas in Vermont, mainly Chittenden County, the program has been "completely ineffective."

"The prosecutors have not embraced the pre-charge concept of what this pretrial services program is all about, and as a result it's pretty much stalled in every county," Valerio said.

Washington County State's Attorney Scott Williams said that he was enthusiastic about the program when it was initially rolled out, but said that in practice there has been confusion and the system is not as robust as he anticipated.

"The idea was very noble. I still would like us to be able to take a run with that," Williams said. "But it certainly hasn't hit its potential."

Ramniceanu said that there have been some challenges in building the program infrastructure.

The technology system that is used makes it difficult to accurately record how many people have moved through the program in different counties, though Ramniceanu said numbers are not the whole issue.

"You can deliver a lot of content and a lot of research, but if people are not really buying in because of various concerns or philosophically held believes, that's a larger change issue that takes a longer period of time to address," Ramniceanu said. "It's not going to go away overnight."

Bobby Sand, a Vermont Law School professor who worked as a policy analyst with the administration on the creation of the pretrial program, was positive about the decision to house it within the Attorney General's Office.

"I'm excited about the move because I'm not sure that the DOC was ever the perfect place to put a program that was entirely designed to work with people before they were convicted," Sand said.

Sand addressed critics who say the program has not reached enough people.

"If you are someone who has avoided having charges filed against you because of the existence of pre-charge programs that we have, this is a pretty huge thing to you," Sand said.

Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @emhew.


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