Proposed law would better classify Vermont crimes

BENNINGTON -- Lawmakers are looking to better classify crimes in Vermont to provide more uniform sentencing across the state.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his committee has advanced a bill that would create a group to recommend a classification system for criminal offenses.

"We don't have a system similar to other states where you have minor misdemeanors, minor felons, major felonies," he said.

As a result, Vermont's crime classification system is minimal. Currently, any crime that has a sentence of less than two years is considered a misdemeanor and a felony charge requires a sentence of more than two years imprisonment. Most offenses have no minimum sentence or recommended average sentences, Sears said.

The state has launched previous attempts to better classify crimes. An effort in the 1980s never made it through the Legislature, Sears said. And then a sentencing commission was cut in 2008 as the state looked to trim the state budget.

"We thought it was time to take a look at this again with a small group of people to see if we could find some agreement," Sears said.

Two recent embezzlement cases in Bennington County highlighted the need for a better system, Sears said. Defendants were charged with embezzlement, one for $10 and the other for $40. Both were charged with felonies and face up to 10 years in prison.

"When you have embezzlement of $5 million as an equal crime and penalty for embezzlement of $10, something is off and wrong and you need to classify these crimes," he said.

The bill calls for a five-member working group "for the purpose of developing a criminal offense system that is well-organized and reflective of appropriate grading of liability and punishment and increasing uniformity in application of the law throughout the state." Including in the group would be:

* The attorney general or designee

* The executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs or designee

* The defender general or designee

* A criminal defense attorney appointed by the defender general

* The director of the Vermont Center for Justice Research

Sears said the issue of sentencing is a concern for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. As a result, both are well-represented in the working group, he said.

The small group should be able to create a fair system, Sears said. "When the groups are too large what happens is you end up with decisions that don't make sense," he said.

The group must deliver a report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees by Nov. 1, 2014 that includes its proposal for classifying criminal offenses and penalties.

The legislation stands a "pretty good" chance of passing this year, Sears said. The legislation should help to improve the state's judicial system, he said.

"What I do anticipate is a better classification of crimes so there is a clear signal to the public that this is minor or this is serious and something that should get a jail sentence," Sears said.

Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said he supports the legislation and looks forward to participating in the working group.

"There are wide disparities in sentencing," Valerio said. "There are clearly policy decisions being made by states attorneys in the various counties where if you are charged with something in Bennington County you're going to be dealt with differently and use more correctional resources."

Valerio, who has served as the state's defender general for more than 12 years, said the disparities must be addressed.

"There is a level of unfairness to that. What the bill hopes to do is identify disparities within the statutes and within the charging systems so that they can get within some reasonable range where you don't have somebody being treated so differently in one county versus another," he said.


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