A few weeks ago, we provided an update on bills to watch as we approached the “crossover” deadline of the 2022 Vermont legislative session. Crossover is the deadline for bills to move from one legislative chamber to the other. Bills that don’t make the crossover deadline are shelved for the rest of the year unless they are granted an exemption.
Now that the dust has settled, here’s an update on key legislation advanced by the ACLU and our allies. Since the legislature is scheduled to adjourn in May, all bills need to pass before then or they will need to restart the whole process next January.
Gender affirming birth certificates. H.628, a bill that makes it easier for people to amend their birth certificates to accurately reflect their gender identity, passed in both the House and the Senate. At a time when legislators around the country have introduced scores of anti-trains bills, we want to thank and recognize all of our allies who took the lead on passing this bill in Vermont. It now heads to the governor’s desk, where he is expected to sign in into law.
On the move
After the crossover deadline, the House of Representatives passed several bills over to the Senate that advance our Smart Justice campaign goals of reducing incarceration and combatting racial disparities in our criminal legal system.
Tracking racial disparities in our criminal legal system. H. 546 would create the Division of Racial Justice statistics to identify and help address disparities across the system. After years of advocating for data transparency, we are excited to see this bill advance with an accompanying appropriation in the budget. We hope the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations Committees will pass the bill with some improvements before the end of the session.
Reforming sentencing practices. The House also passed a handful of bills directly addressing sentencing practices that drive up incarceration rates. H.475 and H.505 reduce statutory sentences for a wide range of crimes including drug possession, and H.399 would require the court to consider someone’s status as a primary caregiver when making decisions about incarceration.
Paired with H.87, a bill passed last year that lowers penalties for property crimes, these bills represent a significant step forward in reforming our sentencing laws and creating a smarter criminal legal system. We hope the Senate Judiciary takes up and passes these bills before the end of the session.
Immigration arrests at courthouses. The Senate passed S.140, a bill that would prohibit arrests for immigration purposes at Vermont courthouses, promoting equal access to justice and better ensuring that everyone can feel safe and secure when they need to go to court. The impact of immigration enforcement at courthouses greatly undermines the security of vulnerable communities and the fundamental right to equal protection under the law. This bill is now in front of the House Judiciary Committee, where we and our allies have testified in support.
Studies, studies, and more studies
Due primarily to the obstruction and opposition of state law enforcement leaders, several police reforms bills have been watered down to a collection of studies. The fate of these bills has called into question the extent of Vermont’s stated commitment to reimagine policing and address systemic racism.
Ending qualified immunity. S.254 would have eliminated qualified immunity and made it easier for victims of police misconduct to get justice in civil court. But this version bears little resemblance to the original bill. Instead of ending qualified immunity for police who violate Vermonters’ rights, as proposed in the original draft, the bill now calls for an independent analysis of qualified immunity so the legislature has more information to act on this year.
Reforming policing practices. H.635, a bill that would change how police handle minor traffic offenses, and S.250, a bill to increase police accountability, also met similar fates, with most of the provisions in each bill being modified from requiring changes in practice to mandating studies for future legislative sessions. Some key components of S.250 did survive, including the creation of a database of untrustworthy cops and requirements that felony interrogations be videotaped.
While we are disappointed with these short-term setbacks, we are committed to advancing more bold legislation and holding police accountable when they violate Vermonters’ civil rights.
“On the wall” and going nowhere
A bill that isn’t going anywhere is literally stuck “on the wall”. Committees track all the bills assigned to them using pieces of paper on cork boards. When a bill is stuck “on the wall” that means it won’t be brought up for debate or advanced “off the wall” to another committee.
Removing armed cops from schools. Unfortunately, one bill that appears stuck on the wall for the rest of the session is S.63, which would remove armed police from Vermont schools. Despite numerous calls to advance the bill from hundreds of activists, this bill failed to receive even one hearing from the Senate Education Committee since it was introduced last January.
Again and again, it appears that there is a dwindling appetite for lawmakers to take on issues of police reform and accountability the more time passes since the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice protests of 2020. We will be fighting to ensure this trend does not continue in the next biennium.
As we head into the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, we will be working with our legislative and community allies to ensure these important bills are as strong as possible and that they make it over the finish line.