Bratt lawmaker pitches criminal-justice reform

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BRATTLEBORO >> Vermont needs criminal-justice reform, but it does not need more incarceration, Rep. Mollie Burke contends.

The Brattleboro Progressive/Democrat is leading the charge to make a variety of changes aimed at decreasing the number of nonviolent offenders who are behind bars. She and others who back a new bill labeled H.221 argue that such reforms will have a positive social impact and will save money for the cash-strapped state.

"The bill represents a way to make sensible reforms based on pragmatic solutions and outcomes," Burke said. "If these measures were to be adopted this year, Vermont would not need to send our incarcerated citizens to out-of-state prisons, thus saving the state $12 million. There would also be additional savings in the form of services for children due to reduction in the number of incarcerated parents."

But the bill will attract much scrutiny, and some already are calling into question its effects on the state's ability to monitor offenders.

"This is a lengthy bill with many different sections that range from constructive to well-intended but misguided," said David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs. "We look forward to fully vetting the bill with the House Judiciary Committee."

Burke serves on the House Transportation Committee, but she is delving into criminal-justice reform based in part on her concerns about incarcerated women. She cited a conference she attended last fall sponsored by the Women's Caucus, the Vermont Commission on Women and Vermont Law School.

"This bill is a follow-up to address some of the issues that came out of the conference," Burke said. "It addresses issues of both women and men in the criminal-justice system. However, women are more likely to commit the nonviolent crimes which this bill addresses."

The legislation proposes a wide variety of shifts in criminal-justice policy including changes in the definitions of felony larceny and felony embezzlement.

Also, "it calls for sensible reform regarding legal behavior for those on probation and parole and prevents people from being kept behind bars solely because they do not have a home," Burke said. "It prevents sending people on parole back to jail unless a new crime has been committed. And it makes it more difficult to terminate parental rights based on incarceration."

Other provisions include expanding the uses of administrative probation, which is a less-restrictive form of supervision; prohibiting sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without parole; and expanding parole eligibility for "persons with a serious medical condition, persons 65 years of age and persons sentenced for an offense committed as a juvenile," according to online legislative documents.

Burke said her bill "addresses only nonviolent offenders. Evidence shows that sentences can safely be reduced and better outcomes can be achieved with less incarceration."

The proposals were applauded by Burlington-based Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, which has lobbied to end the state's practice of shipping inmates outside Vermont.

"We have become so used to mass incarceration that we've forgotten how drastic — how brutal — it is to lock someone up," VCJR Director Suzi Wizowaty said in a statement accompanying the introduction of H.221.

"But prison doesn't prevent crime," Wizowaty added. "If anything, it encourages more crime. It doesn't rehabilitate anyone. It doesn't even 'incapacitate,' since you can use drugs, steal and hurt others just as easily in prison as outside. If we want to create safer communities, we need a more-effective response to interpersonal harm — and that means putting fewer people in jail."

Lawmakers will hear contrary opinions in the coming weeks and months as the bill is mulled over and likely altered in committee.

"It is safe to say that we oppose portions of the bill that restrict the Department of Corrections' ability to effectively supervise felons released from prison on furlough or parole," Cahill wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer. "The bill would also limit judges' ability to impose bail on persons who pose a risk of nonappearance in court. We oppose such a limitation and question how the criminal-justice system could function if the court lacks the ability to compel future attendance at hearings."

The full text of H.221 and all other bills introduced by state lawmakers is available at legislature.vermont.gov.

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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