Legislators, UCS staff discuss mental health needs, services

Erica Marthage talks to legislators in 2019 about metal health in the state of Vermont and what they can do to bring better mental health to the community.

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BENNINGTON — The Vermont Senate passed a change in Vermont’s first-in-the-nation “Raise the Age” law, which legally classifies 18-year-olds as juveniles in the criminal justice system and is scheduled to add 19-year-olds this summer.

Following the lead of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full chamber voted to hit the pause button on automatically adding 19-year-olds to the juvenile system — in part because of alleged gang violence involving young offenders from other states — and instead allows prosecutors to decide on a case-by-case basis whether an offender belongs in criminal or family court to face charges.

The issue arose when Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage and others raised concerns about violent or even armed 19-year-olds coming into Vermont from other states and committing crimes. Those offenders, they maintain, should have their cases tried in criminal court and be treated as adults. In other cases, young offenders who might have mental illness or commit non-violent crimes do not belong in the criminal justice system and instead require services to ensure they do not re-offend.

The Senate approved legislation giving Marthage and other prosecutors the flexibility to decide how cases are handled, based on the offense and offender. Members were also worried that Vermont’s Department of Children and Families lacks the resources to handle an influx of 19-year-olds requiring those services.

“I think there are two separate issues going on here,” Marthage said. “There’s the real issue of DCF not having services in place to deal with this age group and the needs they require to be successful, and there’s the issue of public safety in deciphering the threat some individuals pose to the community.”

Gov. Phil Scott’s office requested the pause to solidify planning before 19-year-olds were included in the change.

In 2020, Vermont became the first state to pass the “Raise the Age” law affecting 18- and 19-year-olds. The law addresses all individuals in that age group without differentiating between their history and the severity of the crimes they are charged with. It also charges DCF with planning appropriate housing and services for these newly added juvenile defendants. The 18-year-old offenders are already added to the juvenile system; 19-year-olds are expected to be added starting this July.

Officially, the State’s Attorney’s Office does not support or oppose pausing the new law for 19-year-olds. Marthage said she personally supports the committee’s change and hopes that the funding and planning for how to treat these cases are finally addressed. And she said, prosecutors need the discretion to choose between appropriate cases for the new law, and violent individuals who should go into the criminal courts because of community safety issues.

“Some of those cases belong in criminal court,” she said. “Some of those cases are affiliated with gang-related activities. Some involve violence and weapons. Not everyone who is violent has a mental illness. Not everyone who commits violence has had a bad childhood. Some people who commit violence are just violent. Right now, I’m forced to put someone that’s potentially a violent offender in with non-violent people who don’t have those tendencies in the DCF system.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover by saying that this kid committed this offense, so he needs to be put in this or that box,” she said. “That’s not how it should work.”

Marthage feels she and other state’s attorneys need the discretion to decide which way those cases go.

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“Ironically, I’ve had that discretion up until the Raise the Age was passed,” Marthage said. “Things like blended sentences and applying youthful offender status, case planning for each kid, working hand-in-hand with defense attorneys, trying to find the best way to achieve rehabilitation, that has to be part of all of this, as well as recognizing when that might not always work. We need to be able to use all of our combined experiences to continue to make better outcomes.”

The Banner recently reported a rash of violent crimes allegedly committed by 18- and 19-year-olds — many from other states, carrying semi-automatic weapons and dangerous drugs.

This past April, Anthony Tejada Cruz was arrested when police executed a search warrant at the Apple Valley Inn in Bennington. Two individuals, 18 and 19, were arrested in that case. In the police affidavit, the 18-year-old said, “everything here is mine.” Other instances involved offenders in this age bracket with semi-automatic weapons, illicit drugs, and facing accusations related to serious violent crimes.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the new bill, which is now in the House awaiting action, pauses the Raise the Age law for 19-year-olds for a year as DCF and the Department of Corrections try and find appropriate places for these young offenders and develop rehabilitation programs.

“There’s a lot of issues regarding placement for some of these individuals, especially the violent individuals such as the ones the Banner has been writing about,” Sears said, referring to recent articles on alleged gang activity in Bennington County. “I’ve been pushing the DOC to supply four beds at Marble Valley (Regional Correctional Facility) for youth under the age of 18 who have committed serious felonies. The DCF needs time to implement programs and housing, as well.”

The spirit of the Raise the Age law, which Marthage personally supports, is, “You don’t magically become an adult when you turn 18,” she says. “The people that I’d been working within the juvenile court, the 12-year-old that maybe was neglected as a kid, then turned into a delinquent kid, all tied to their lack of community support, their lack of role models, unstable housing — that’s what the law was originally aimed at. We need to support that.”

What Marthage saw happening before the Raise the Age law was 19-year-old young adults, who were not any more equipped than when they were 16, being sent to criminal court and having to jump through hoops to get them into youthful offenders status. She also saw youth that her office had seen previously, kids who came from dysfunctional situations, who got into trouble when they were coming of age. Some of them are being sent to adult jails or not given a real chance at rehabilitation. That’s why she supported the Raise the Age law and wants it to be successful statewide.

“These individuals would commit an offense at 19, say a burglary that they could plead guilty to in criminal court, and then we’d immediately transfer them to juvenile court for sentencing,” which in the juvenile world, means service, she said. Then, she could determine the individual’s living situation, as well as educational services and any counseling services that were available — all resources, she noted, to which children who are not in at-risk homes have access.

“My number-one job is the safety of the community,” Marthage said. “Every case and every individual is different. Allowing us to decide which cases should stay and which ones, on the flip side, should go to criminal court would give us the flexibility that’s needed. We don’t know where to put those 18- and 19-year-old felony drug dealers showing up with a firearm. I’m not going to put him in a foster home with non-violent youth who maybe have some mental health issues or got in some trouble earlier in their lives and stand a good chance of rehabilitation. That’s not fair to anyone.”

Marthage said there are no places for some of the more violent individuals who fall under the Raise the Age law. “No place for them locally, a family home or a relative. The DOC has no place for them. “We can’t just send them back to where they came from, though,” she said. “There needs to be an immediate consequence for crossing state lines with drugs and guns. Again, our number-one responsibility is to the safety of the community.”

“There has to be a buffer for some of these kids. My hope is that the legislature looks at this with an open mind. This law needs to be a living document. It’s legislation that will need to be tweaked and changed as time goes on. I hope that it will.”


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