Decriminalize drug offenses and related crimes.
Reforming our criminal justice system requires a fundamental shift away from criminalizing behaviors that need not involve police, prosecutors, and incarceration. While Vermont has decriminalized possession of marijuana, there is still progress to be made in finally treating substance use disorder as the public health issue that it is. Vermont needs to decriminalize other drug offenses and better account for substance abuse disorder in related offenses, such as trespassing, sex work, and writing bad checks.
Expand treatment for mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
Mental health and substance use diversion is an effective way to redirect people out of the criminal justice system and into supportive community treatment. Diversion programs have been shown to be effective for people charged with both nonviolent and violent offenses, and help reduce crime. Vermont currently uses post-guilty plea specialty courts to divert referred, nonviolent cases. These programs should include diversion at earlier phases in the process, like pre-arrest diversion, and eliminate eligibility limitations based on offense.
When implemented more effectively, earlier diversion can reduce arrests, encourage voluntary treatment in the community, and save money. Effective diversion programs coordinate with community services that provide a wide range of wraparound treatments and support for people with disabilities to access housing, employment, and individualized supports in the community. In the long run, diversion programs have the potential of saving jurisdictions large amounts of money. Upfront services like these are preferable to the cost and decreased efficiency of a post-plea specialty court diversion program.
Stop criminalizing poverty and eliminate cash bail.
Far too often, people who cannot afford bail spend weeks or months in custody as they wait for their day in court. Oftentimes, the criminal justice system leaves them with an impossible choice: take a plea deal or fight the case from behind bars.
People face significant collateral damage, such as job loss or interrupted education, as a result of even brief periods of incarceration, and research shows that pretrial detention significantly increases a defendant’s risk of conviction. Vermont has made great progress in addressing collateral consequences, including through expanding eligibility for expungement, and we can significantly reduce rates of pretrial detention by eliminating the use of cash bail for all crimes, rather than only for expungement-eligible misdemeanors.
Wealth-based detention is unfair and it is bad policy. The fact is that for real bail reform to work in Vermont, pretrial detention needs to be limited to the rare case where a person poses a serious, clear threat to another person.