Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice

House bill would revamp minor guardianship law in Vermont

Last week the House passed a bill that substantially overhauls Vermont law regarding minor guardianship. Existing law is nearly 100 years old and fails to adequately address the needs of families in this century.

In a nutshell, the minor guardianship procedure in the probate division allows a family to choose someone other than a parent to have custody and responsibility for a child. Most probate guardianships are ordered with the consent of the parent, but some are contested and the rules governing contested cases are currently incomplete. In addition, existing law gives little guidance in handling a guardianship that begins with consent, but later becomes contested when the parent seeks to resume custody.

H.581 addresses all of those issues and lays out a clear road map for parents, guardians and probate judges going forward. It is a significant piece of legislation and reflects the careful work of a dedicated group of stakeholders who met for nearly 18 months and produced a comprehensive report.

The bill now moves to the Senate where we hope it will be passed this session.

H.732

With the introduction of H.732, co-sponsored by Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, Vermont is the 12th state to introduce legislation that would block some of the effects of mass data collection by the National Security Agency (NSA). The bill as drafted proposes to prohibit the State from assisting or participating in the collection of electronic data or metadata by the federal government or from using any of the data collected unless it is obtained pursuant to a warrant issued by a court.

Read an article on H.732 here >>

Read the full bill here >>

Corrections and Institutions Update

House Corrections and Institutions was invited by Senate Judiciary to hear from Corrections Commissioner Andrew Pallito and senior policy and legal adviser for Public Safety, Robert Sand. Both introduced the committees to a proposal for a pretrial risk and assessment program. This program would identify defendants who should be diverted for treatment of substance abuse or mental health issues into receiving treatment for their addiction rather than incarceration.

The proposal is based on three programs that are being used by state’s attorneys in some parts of the state. Two are in Chittenden County — the Rapid Intervention Community Court and Rapid Referral Program. A third, the Sparrow Program, offers case management and reporting to courts in Windsor County.

People’s access to justice is unpredictable across the state depending on the programs implemented by (or available to) elected State’s Attorneys in their counties. For example, people being arrested for drug possession in Chittenden County often experience much lighter sentencing than in more rural parts of the state where these programs are not in use. We can expect this to be a top discussion in committee in the weeks to come as the bill (S.295) introduced by Senator Sears and others is on fast track to come over to us from the Senate.

Rep. Cindy Weed Responds to Governor Shumlin's State of the State Address

I believe that we should do everything possible to curb drug use and addiction in Vermont. Addiction not only adversely affects addicts and their families, it threatens the security of our communities and leads to increases in crime rates. Addiction is a growing health care crisis that needs medical intervention, but  currently there are not enough treatment centers to serve those in need of help.

The Governor's proposal for more treatment centers makes sense. In addition, it is cheaper to send an addict to a treatment center than off to prison. Creating a healthier community for less money is being fiscally responsible. We know what works from pilot programs, studies, and hands on experience in the field from doctors like Franklin County's own Dr. Fred Holmes.

Additionally, the Governor proposed some statutory changes that make sense, such as expanding prosecutor-led interventions beyond Chittenden County and creating tougher sentences for those bringing drugs into Vermont and those who engage in armed robbery. He also proposed grants for educating youth about addiction, such as showing the Bess O'Brien film "Hungry Heart" and having former addicts give presentations in schools. There is also national health care money available to help prevent drug abuse. Those initiatives, plus a federal $37M early education grant, can provide youth with the tools they need and the opportunity to be successful in life, plus they act as an economic generator by providing new jobs.

The way that we have been dealing with addiction is not working well. It is time to make the necessary changes and improvements that have proven to be successful. It makes fiscal sense and it's the compassionate thing to do in order to have a healthy and vibrant state.

Rep. Cindy Weed

Marijuana Decriminalization

As the lead sponsor of the marijuana decriminalization bill (H.200), it's been an interesting few weeks.  As you may have heard, on Friday the bill finally advanced in the House with a vote of 98-44 and will soon head to the Senate, where it is likely to see action quickly.  Progressives have been at the forefront of this discussion for years, so it’s nice to see it finally moving forward.

At the outset of the debate on H.200, I questioned whether or not we could have an "adult" conversation about marijuana.  Overall, however, the answer seems to have been yes.  Sure there were plenty of snickers as the discussion got started.  And the obligatory jokes, too.  You know, about "token" opposition and "joint" hearings with the Senate.  And so on.

But after a solid week of testimony in the House Judiciary Committee, only one witness came in to make the long discredited claim that marijuana was a gateway to harder drugs.  Sure, and bicycles are gateways to joining a motorcycle gang.  There were some who claimed that kids will be more tempted to try marijuana if the bill passes.  But they were one or two voices and not enough to outweigh the support, even from such sources as the Commission of Public Safety (leader of the state police), the Vermont Attorney General, Chittenden County States Attorney TJ Donovan, and many others.

In the end, H.200 passed out of committee with a vote of 9-2, including support from all the Democrats, the one independent, and one of the Republicans.  They did whittle down the bill to decriminalizing possession of only up to one ounce and removed provisions I had in the original bill that would have also decriminalized growing up to two plants.  The Committee could only go so far in acknowledging the reality that marijuana must come from somewhere.  Still, all in all, I'm proud of the House and its recognition that prohibition doesn't work.  While we may have to wait a long time for the Federal government to acknowledge the right of states to legalize, at least we are recognizing that people who choose to use marijuana aren't necessarily criminals.

Prohibiton Has Failed

It's been nearly a century since Vermont first prohibited marijuana in 1915.  It hasn't worked and it's time for a new approach.

Just like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition does not eliminate the use of the product and simply steers all of the profits to the underground market.  Given the fact that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, it is time we have it produced and sold in a legitimate, regulated market.

Regulating marijuana like alcohol and allowing the production of industrial hemp would create hundreds of new, legal jobs and generate business for a variety of other Vermont industries.

That’s why I just introduced H.499 in the Vermont Legislature along with several cosponsors (Deen of Westminster,  Masland of Thetford, Stevens of Shoreham, and Zagar of  Barnard).  The bill is now making its way through the legislative process.

This bill proposes:

1. To create a regulatory structure for the wholesale and retail sale of marijuana that includes licensing and oversight by the Department of Liquor Control.

2. To establish an excise tax on every wholesale seller of $50.00 per ounce upon marijuana sold in Vermont.

3. To permit regulation and licensing for growing industrial hemp in accordance with 6 V.S.A. chapter 34 to proceed regardless of whether federal regulations have been adopted.

4. To permit an individual who is 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and three marijuana plants while maintaining criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana and for sale of marijuana outside the regulatory structure established in this act.

5. To provide the same penalties for underage possession of marijuana as the current penalties for underage possession of alcohol.

Read the full text of the bill here >>

Other reasons why I feel it’s time for a new approach and to have a debate about creating a regulatory structure:

 > Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol for the consumer and the community.  It is far less toxic, less addictive, and less harmful to the body.  And, unlike alcohol, it does not contribute to violent and reckless behavior.


 > It is irrational to punish adults and make them criminals simply for using a substance that is far safer than alcohol.

 > Marijuana prohibition is just as ineffective, wasteful, and harmful as alcohol prohibition was in the 1920s.

 > Prohibiting marijuana steers consumers into the underground market, where they can be exposed to other more dangerous drugs.  In addition, illegal marijuana dealers are not subject to quality standards, and they are not testing or labeling their products.

 > Regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol would create MORE barriers to teens’ access to marijuana than prohibition does.

 > Marijuana prohibition IS NOT keeping marijuana out of the hands of youth.  Year after year, more than 80% of high school seniors nationwide report that marijuana is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get.  According to CDC data, more Vermont high schoolers report using marijuana than report using tobacco.

 > Strict enforcement of regulations, along with public education, has been effective in reducing teen tobacco use.  We can do the same thing with marijuana.

 > Drug dealers don't ask for ID.  We need to have marijuana sold in regulated stores where employees ask for proof of age and are legally required to only sell to adults.

 > Regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol would bolster Vermont’s economy with significant new tax revenue and job creation.

 > In addition to sales tax, H.499 imposes a $50 per ounce excise tax on wholesale sales, which would generate millions of dollars in tax revenue each year.

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