MONTPELIER -- House committees have finished weeks of work on a broad criminal justice reform bill designed to give courts more information about people charged with crimes and more easily connect those people with substance abuse and mental health services.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has heralded the bill as an attempt to help more Vermonters who are apprehended for a drug-related crime to find treatment. Drug addicts are more likely to accept help when they are faced with criminal charges, Shumlin and state officials say.
The House Judiciary Committee this week passed a version of S.295 that includes more specifics about how pretrial services will roll out in courthouses across the state. It also details how people will be funneled into treatment.
The bill contains more than a dozen modifications from the Senate version, some technical, others substantive.
Three House committees have vetted the bill over the past month: Judiciary, Human Services and Corrections and Institutions. The Appropriations Committee also modified it Friday.
The bill lays out a process for courts to gather more information about people who are arrested, before they are charged. A so-called "risk assessment" is an evaluation of a person's risk of failure to appear in court or of committing a new crime.
The "needs screening" is a brief evaluation to estimate whether a person has a substance abuse or mental health condition.
The bill creates a new type of service provider, a "pretrial monitor," who works with courts, attorneys and a defendant to help him or her comply with instructions from a judge, such as attending substance abuse treatment.
In addition to pretrial services, the bill asks the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs' Association to develop guidelines for precharge programs, which can funnel people into treatment even before they are charged with a crime.
State's attorneys have the discretion to create such programs, and Windsor, Chittenden and Rutland counties have already done so.
Next year's budget has $760,000 earmarked for the program, which will hire about 10 pretrial monitors, said Bobby Sand, a policy analyst hired by the governor to shepherd S.295 through the Legislature.
"I don't think I've seen such a sweeping bill that has such broad support for it," Sand said.
Although S.295 has yet to go through the conference committee process, Sand counts the legislation as a success.
"I think it is a hugely important bill that will change people's lives and ultimately will save us a lot of money, even if that wasn't the original intention," he said.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chair of House Judiciary, said the bill is an important contribution to the criminal justice system.
"I think we'll look back with great satisfaction and pride some years from now," Lippert said.
The legislation will create safer communities, Lippert said, because it will direct people to treatment rather than repeatedly cycle them through courts.
The House Judiciary Committee created a phased rollout of the pretrial programs, to ensure people in all parts of the state get access to the program and prevent the new system from being flooded with clients.
The risk assessment and needs screening will only be offered to certain types of alleged offenders, including those charged with misdemeanors, drug felony offenses and other nonviolent offenses.
Treatment providers have worried that pretrial referrals will overwhelm their already overburdened offices. The legislation does not provide designated mental health agencies and drug treatment facilities with more resources to handle higher caseloads.
The bill instructs state agencies to monitor the effect on service providers.
Julie Tessler, executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services, likes aspects of the bill.
"There's a lot of work to still be done about how it's going to work in each community, but I think that can't really be legislated," she said.
Lippert said S.295 protects citizens' due process rights. Both the risk assessment and needs screening are voluntary. If a citizen chooses to go through the process, the results are made available to the prosecutor. After the prosecutor files charges, the defendant and his or her attorney, as well as the court, can obtain the information.
"No due process rights are compromised or lost, " Lippert said.
Defender General Matthew Valerio, whose office defends people accused of crimes, Friday said he is satisfied with the safeguards in the bill.
Valerio says the bill should set up precharge programs, which with very little bureaucracy keep people out of the system, Valerio said.
"I don't think enough emphasis has been put on the precharge part of this, which has worked so well in Chittenden County," he said.
Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan's Rapid Intervention Community Court has been heralded as a model precharge initiative.
Valerio also said he hopes the rush to connect people with treatment will not short-change the judicial system's duty to hold law enforcement accountable and determine whether someone is guilty or innocent.
"If everything is focused on treatment and not on due process then we don't have the accountability we need," Valerio said.
House Human Services Chairwoman Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said her committee focused on the continuity of treatment when someone goes to jail.
Human Services added a one-year pilot program with the Department of Corrections to continue the use of medication-assisted opioid addiction for people awaiting trial or serving a sentence.
Corrections and Institutions Committee Chairwoman Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said her committee made sure the bill includes a process for evaluating pretrial services to "get the numbers and really see it's being effective."
Judge Amy Davenport, chief administrative judge for the Vermont Courts, said the Senate version was more conceptual while the House version drills into specifics.
"I think it's a bill that's just gotten better and better," Davenport said Friday.
Changes ushered in by S.295 won't happen overnight, she said. The assessments will be new tools for judges.
The House Judiciary Committee also downgraded two criminal provisions in the bill, one regarding trafficking drugs into Vermont and another about home invasion.
The bill also includes sections about the opiate treatment drugs buprenorphine and naloxone.
It calls for stricter rules on doctors' prescribing buprenorphine because that drug can be abused and sold on the street.
It calls for pharmacists to dispense naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug without a prescription.
There is also a section allowing all licensed alcohol and drug counselors to accept Medicaid, among other provisions.