2018 Legislative Session Review
With a full-time presence in the state house and the support of our members, the ACLU of Vermont played a key role in safeguarding and advancing Vermonters’ civil liberties in the second half of the 2017-2018 biennium. This session, the ACLU tracked more than 140 bills and testified on dozens of pieces of legislation impacting civil and constitutional rights. We are especially grateful to our members who contacted their representatives at critical moments to support ACLU’s policy agenda by making their voices heard—your efforts made a difference. Thank you.
Criminal Justice Reform
With ACLU’s Smart Justice Vermont campaign underway with a goal of reducing Vermont’s prison population by 50%, criminal justice reform remained a top priority at the legislature. The ACLU helped advance several bills that will have a positive impact in reducing Vermont’s costly and harmful over-reliance on incarceration.
Around 400 Vermonters are incarcerated pretrial every day, many of them simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. The ACLU believes that no one should be in prison only because they are poor. H. 728 takes a positive step towards ending this practice by eliminating cash bail for expungement-eligible misdemeanor crimes (with a $200 bail cap for defendants who may present a heightened risk of flight). The bill also changes the standard for setting bail to better ensure that those who miss court appearances through no fault of their own are not treated the same as those who willfully flee prosecution. The governor signed H. 728 into law on May 22, 2018.
Medically assisted treatment
Vermont prisoners lack access to comprehensive and continuous medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. S. 166 requires the Department of Corrections to screen all inmates for opioid use disorder within 24 hours of incarceration, provide access to treatment without arbitrary time limits, allow people who are addicted to begin treatment at any time, and coordinate treatment with community providers as people transition back into the community. The governor signed the bill into law on May 25, 2018.
It is both costly and inhumane for Vermont to continue to imprison people who are seriously ill and pose no threat to public safety. H. 150 sets up a process for medical parole or furlough for prisoners with serious medical conditions. While the bill as introduced was significantly broader, this legislation, which was signed into law by the governor on March 27, 2018, is still a welcome step forward. We will continue to fight for more expansive compassionate release and second-look legislation next year.
Vermont’s criminal sentencing laws are outdated and have not been rewritten or standardized in decades. We advocated for H. 660, which tasks the Vermont Sentencing Commission with recommending an overhaul of sentencing laws. We successfully persuaded legislators to add a provision in the bill to restrict the addition of new mandatory minimums. Governor Scott signed the bill into law on May 21, 2018.
Public records reform
The Center for Public Integrity has given Vermont an ‘F’ in access to public records. Beginning this year, the ACLU worked with a coalition of journalists and the Vermont Secretary of State’s office to propose an overhaul of Vermont’s outdated and inadequate public records law. While we hoped for legislation that would make government more transparent and open to the public, the final bill, H. 910 falls well short of that goal. It does, however, include a few important changes to standardize agency response time to public records requests and creates a sunset provision such that any new exemptions to the Public Records Act will be subject to review every five years and will expire if not explicitly renewed. Governor Scott signed the bill into law on May 22, 2018.
New exemptions defeated
Working with our allies and members, we were successful in defeating an effort to exempt nutrient management plans from the Public Records Act. The plans detail the practices farms use to keep fertilizer and manure out of Vermont's waters, and Vermonters have the right to know about the health of our waterways and how taxpayer dollars are being deployed to protect them.
Privacy and Technology
We continued our fight to protect Vermonters’ privacy, including testifying in favor of H. 764, which was introduced following the Equifax breach. The bill governs “data brokers” and is designed to give Vermonters more information about who has their data and to protect that data from misuse. Governor Scott allowed this bill to become law without his signature on May 22, 2018.
Internet freedom is essential to consumer protection and to freedom of speech and expression. The ACLU supported legislative efforts to respond to the Federal Communications Commission’s rollback of net neutrality rules. S. 289 ensures the state only contracts with internet service providers that abide by net neutrality principles and sets the stage for further protections to maintain a fair and open internet. Governor Scott signed this bill into law on May 22, 2018.
Automatic license plate readers
The ACLU continued to oppose Vermont law enforcement agencies’ continuing use of automatic license plate reader (ALPR) systems. ALPRs are stationary or car-mounted cameras that capture images of license plates for law enforcement purposes. In Vermont, these images are stored for up to 18 months, threatening Vermonters’ privacy by creating a database of drivers’ movements and locations. With S. 150, the legislature extended the regulations governing ALPRs to 2020, but also required an audit of ALPR use and compliance with state law. The governor signed the bill into law on May 25, 2018.
Roadside saliva testing
The ACLU again played an important role in defeating H. 237, which would have instituted warrantless roadside saliva testing in Vermont. We raised multiple constitutional concerns regarding due process, equal protection, and privacy, and ultimately died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. We extend our gratitude to all of our supporters and the legislators who spoke out in opposition to this misguided legislation.
Racial Equity Advisory Panel
With our allies in the Racial Justice Reform Coalition, we successfully advocated for S. 281, which establishes a Racial Equity Advisory Panel and creates the position of Executive Director of Racial Equity to address and remediate systemic racial bias in the state. The bill was not perfect, but it did represent a significant step in addressing systemic racism in Vermont. The governor vetoed S. 281 on May 30, 2018, citing constitutional concerns, but created a very similar body by executive order. During the special session, the Senate passed S. 5, which omits the provision that concerned the Governor but that is in every other way identical to S. 281. The governor signed S.5 into law on June 28, 2018.
Vermont students from non-dominant social groups, including students of color, continue to face widespread discrimination, harassment, and abuse—in part because their lives and experiences are not reflected in the curriculum. That is why we advocated for H. 794, which would have created a committee to recommend ethnic studies curriculum standards for Vermont schools. The bill was eventually added to S. 257, which unfortunately died on the last day of the regular legislative session. A similar bill to H. 794, H. 14, was introduced in the special session but did not pass. We will continue to push for this legislation next year.
Paid family leave and a living wage
Access to life’s basic necessities is a prerequisite to enjoying the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Vermont and federal constitutions. People cannot participate fully in society if they are struggling to support their families. That is why we testified in favor of H. 196, which would establish a paid family leave system, and S. 40, which would gradually raise Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Unfortunately, Governor Scott chose not to stand with working Vermonters and their families and vetoed both these bills.
Homeless bill of rights
We teamed up with the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition and Vermont Legal Aid to advocate for H. 412, the Homeless Bill of Rights. This bill would have enshrined the rights of homeless Vermonters into law and protected them from unconstitutional treatment. Unfortunately, the bill died in the House General, Military Affairs, and Housing Committee. We look forward to advancing this legislation in future sessions.
While the ACLU took no position on the Legislature’s firearms bills, we did weigh in on several pieces of gun safety legislation designed to take firearms away from potentially dangerous individuals, including H. 422 and S. 221, in order to ensure that the bills respected due process and other constitutional concerns.
We continued to support H. 333, which requires all single stall restrooms to be gender-neutral. This bill was signed into law on May 11, 2018. We thank the advocates who pushed for this bill, as well as Vermont's legislative leaders and Governor Scott for recognizing the need for safety, access, and dignity for all Vermonters.
The ACLU also supported H. 707, which would combat sexual harassment in the workplace by, among other things, ensuring employers do not silence employees who are victims of such behavior. The bill had strong tripartisan support and was signed into law by the governor on May 28, 2018.
While this legislative session produced some significant and positive advances for civil rights and civil liberties, our work is not finished. We face tremendous challenges at the state and federal level, and we need to respond. With the help of our supporters, we look forward to advancing an ambitious civil liberties agenda next year.