T.J. Donovan: Legislative wins for justice, jobs, and Vermont communities

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One of my top priorities as attorney general has been to build a criminal justice system that keeps communities safe and reflects Vermont's values. I believe that as community we should work together, lift each other up, and make sure everybody has a shot at success. In the realm of community justice, this means implementing reforms that address the underlying causes of criminal behavior and prevent harm before it happens, not just punishing people after it's too late.

Three successful legislative initiatives will put us closer to the ideal Vermont we envision - safer, fairer, more neighborly. I've worked with great partners in the legislature this year to achieve these goals, and I especially thank the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for their leadership and hard work. Together we are creating a community justice system that heals and prevents instead of simply incarcerates and punishes.

Working with partners at Legal Aid, the ACLU, and state's attorneys' offices, my office helped craft and pass a new expungement law that will expand the availability of criminal record expungements. For example, the new law makes expungements available to people who committed drug possession crimes 5 or more years ago. Expunging criminal records is a public safety, pro-jobs, pro-work solution that will provide economic opportunity and expand Vermont's workforce while protecting communities. Studies show that someone who receives an expungement is less likely to re-offend. People who have gotten their records expunged also significantly increase their earnings.

In addition to the expungements bill, my office worked together with the ACLU and Migrant Justice to allow towns and police agencies to be as protective as possible of all people in the state of Vermont, including our neighbors who may be undocumented immigrants. This bill will help protect public safety while building community trust by ensuring that local and state police will never become a de facto arm of federal immigration enforcement.

I am also eager to accept the legislature's mandate that I work with the Department of Corrections in the coming year to develop a better system for individuals who leave our prisons but who are still under the supervision of the Department or parole board — a system currently known as furlough or parole. The current system of furlough and parole is a blunt instrument that can lead to excessive incarceration while failing to address public safety needs. We must do better to match a person's risk level with their level of supervision, and their treatment needs with their release plan. When we do that we will prevent unnecessary and expensive incarceration while focusing our resources where they will best protect the public.

Finally, our valuable Diversion and Pretrial Services programs received a funding increase in response to the increased demands. These programs meet the needs of offenders, victims, and communities by practicing restorative justice and connecting individuals with services they need — including mental health and substance abuse services. Since 2017, when my office worked to update our Diversion and Pretrial Services programs through statutory changes, the usage of Diversion has more than doubled statewide, and Pretrial Services has doubled each year since. This is a great achievement for Vermont and signifies progress toward a better criminal justice system. Until this year, however, this achievement had no corresponding increase in funding. This legislative session the budget was increased by nearly $500,000 to meet the demand. I am grateful to the legislature for allowing these programs to provide the high-quality services needed to make them successful.

In the area of community justice, this was a productive legislative session. My office, in cooperation with our legislative leaders and community stakeholders, made important strides in improving our public safety system. I look forward to next year's session as well, when I plan to work toward a relief from abuse order system that better protects victims from gun-related violence and coercion, make sure people have the opportunity to drive legally and fully insured, and work toward better housing options for low-income Vermonters.

T.J. Donovan is the Vermont Attorney General. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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