Criminal Justice officials optimistic about pretrial service program


MONTPELIER >> More than 1,000 Vermonters have been screened under the state's new pretrial monitoring program since it rolled out earlier this year.

Criminal justice officials say the program is still in its infancy, but they are optimistic about what the program can do in the long run to help Vermonters in the court system with substance abuse and mental health problems.

Pretrial screening is used to evaluate whether an individual is addicted to drugs or alcohol, has mental health issues, or is at risk to reoffend. The screening protocol is simple: Detainees are asked seven questions before making an initial plea before a judge.

Based on the answers provided to screeners, prosecutor could decide to refer the individual to substance abuse or mental health treatment before an arraignment. Depending on the case, and the arrangement with the prosecutor, it's possible that person would never be charged.

The initiative also provides for pretrial monitoring — meaning that after they are arraigned, a judge can refer detainees immediately to a support program.

There are now 11 monitors working across the state — some covering multiple counties. As of mid-October, the system was up and running statewide.

Annie Ramniceanu, who oversees the system, is optimistic about the rollout so far.

Ramniceanu started in 2014 and spent much of the beginning of her tenure putting in place the infrastructure to get the program implemented — negotiating contracts with state's attorneys and working with law enforcement to ensure information is disseminated in an efficient fashion.

Roughly a third of people who are contacted by the monitors by phone to do the screening, Ramniceanu said.

"This is really a huge public health initiative, aside from the connection to criminal justice," Ramniceanu said.

But there are still challenges. For one, basic transference of information can be difficult. Monitors sometimes have trouble getting ahold of individuals who are eligible simply because they do not have their phone numbers.

One of Ramniceanu's next initiatives will be to try to raise awareness of the program, so that Vermonters know that it is available to them.

The law identifies people facing felony charges, drug-related misdemeanor charges, and detainees as eligible to be offered a risk assessment by the monitor. People cited for a misdemeanor could be flagged for screening by friends, family, or someone in the criminal justice system.

Ramniceanu worries that the state is missing people who fall into that group. Shoplifting, she said, could be an indicator of an underlying problem. She's working with lawmakers on legislation to address that.

Meanwhile, the use of pretrial and precharge services varies between counties, as prosecutors have some discretion over the program.

"I'm really glad it's been started," Scott Williams, the state's attorney in Washington County, said Wednesday.

Williams said that the monitor for county began in October, and that it's still relatively new. He just received the first set of information from the monitor at the end of last week, he said.

But Williams said that the program has not yet taken shape in the way he anticipated. He expected that prosecutors could enter into a contract with people, under which, if they comply by terms that could include things like treatment and restorative justice, they will not be charged. Those kinds of contracts haven't yet been put in place, he said.

The county already has some diversion resources available. Local criminal justice centers are operating, and court diversion, an alternative to the courtroom for first-time offenders, is already in place.

They're still figuring out how the various programs work together, he said.

"It does not feel redundant, but it is not seamlessly integrated," Williams said.

Rose Kennedy, the state's attorney for Rutland County, said that a monitor began working there during the summer. Her office tends to flag up people who have multiple low-level offenses, who may have already been through diversion and other alternatives, she said.

One obstacle is actually connecting individuals to the monitors, she said. Sometimes phone numbers are disconnected. The monitor often comes to arraignments to try to catch people to offer a screening before they go in.

"We'd like him to be more of a case manager, and not just do the screening and referrals but actually to help guide them through the process that he's referring him to," Kennedy said.

For instance, Kennedy said, the monitor recently worked with an individual who has issues with stable housing. She'd like for him to be able to do more to help that person go through the process of finding housing.

"I think it's just one more tool that prosecutors can use, but whether or not it has changed anything I think it's a little to soon to tell," Kennedy said.

Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees Vermont's public defenders, said that there are variations in how the program has been implemented across counties. Some prosecutors use it more than others, and the same is true for judges, he said.

"It takes time to change a culture," Valerio said.

Another challenge, he said, is that different levels of services are available in different parts of the state. While there are a cadre treatment options and other services available in Chittenden County, that is not true for more rural counties.

"Nobody thinks it's going to solve everything, but it's one piece of a bigger puzzle," Valerio said.

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


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