2023 legislative session recap

The 2023 legislative session in Vermont concluded in May, and the veto session ended in June, marking the end of the first half of the 2023-24 biennium. The legislature will reconvene in January.  

This year in the State House, the ACLU of Vermont helped draft and introduce new civil liberties legislation, tracked dozens of bills, and testified numerous times before House and Senate Committees. Our supporters sent thousands of messages to legislators, positively impacting some of the most critical issues facing our state.

We achieved significant gains in reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy; criminal legal reform; and promoting harm reduction approaches to substance use disorder. We also face continued struggles on priority issues like police accountability, the rights of unhoused Vermonters, and education equity—all of which we will keep fighting for next year and beyond.

Below, find some highlights of what you helped us achieve at the State House, along with details of our continued efforts to advance and defend civil liberties in Vermont.

Bodily Autonomy 

When Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, it sent a clear signal: state-level protections would be more vital than ever to safeguarding reproductive rights in this country. In Vermont, voters overwhelmingly supported the Reproductive Liberty Amendment in November, explicitly enshrining the right to reproductive healthcare in our state constitution. 

Still, as politicians moved to restrict access to reproductive and gender-affirming care nationwide, we anticipated that some would attempt to criminalize services provided in places where it was legal, like here in Vermont. As a response, the ACLU and our supporters played a major role in crafting and refining two bills, H.89 and S.37. These “shield laws” guard against frivolous and abusive civil litigation or unjust criminal investigations that harm patients and providers. Both bills were signed into law in May.

H.89 bolsters medical privacy protections for patients and safeguards providers from abusive lawsuits and unjust criminal investigations. S.37 helps protect Vermont providers from unfair professional discipline or unreasonable hikes in malpractice insurance for administering legally protected reproductive or gender-affirming health care services. 

Taken together, these pieces of legislation offer our best opportunity to ensure that people who need reproductive and gender-affirming care can access it from Vermont providers. 

Criminal Legal Reform 

Opposing Prison Expansion 

Five years after launching Smart Justice Vermont, we helped galvanize opposition this year to an ill-conceived and financially reckless proposal to drastically expand Vermont’s prison capacity. Specifically, we urged lawmakers to fund lower-cost alternatives to incarceration and advance evidence-driven reforms to reduce our reliance on prisons. With allies, we also elevated fundamental concerns about reforming the prison pipeline and ways to nurture communities affected by incarceration.

We will continue advocating for more realistic proposals and a smarter justice system. The summer and fall are a great time to reach out to your legislators, as decisions made in the year ahead will set the course for decades of prison policy and practices. Use this contact form to tell your legislator(s): Invest in people, not prisons.

Ending Cash Bail (S.27) 

Nobody should be held in prison—away from their homes, families, workplaces, and communities—simply because they do not have enough money for bail. Under Vermont’s bail system, people who cannot afford to pay for their release after an arrest are held behind bars to await trial. This can happen even for low-level offenses, even if someone does not pose a danger to the community, all before they make their case before a judge or are convicted of a crime. 

That is why we were vocal proponents of S.27, a bill that would have ended cash bail for people charged with most misdemeanors. While S.27 passed the Senate, it was ultimately not taken up by the House. However, lawmakers were able to include a study on ending cash bail in Vermont into another piece of legislation—which means that the conversation about how to end cash bail will continue into the next legislative session. 

This summer, we will be consulting the commission tasked with studying cash bail to ensure that it centers ways to realistically end this unjust practice.

Drug decriminalization and harm reduction 

Vermont saw a record number of overdose deaths in 2022. As a part of the Decriminalize Vermont coalition, the ACLU supported multiple pieces of legislation that will enable the state to respond to substance use disorder with care and compassion, instead of criminalization. Among these were a pair of bills that advance a broad public health response to drug use, an overdose prevention bill, and one that pushes the criminal legal system to adopt a harm-reduction response to drug use. While two of these (S.119 and H.222) were signed into law, the others (H.423 and H.72) will be top ACLU advocacy priorities going into the next session.

In the meantime, you can help by signing our petition in favor of building a public health approach to substance use. By adding your name, you will let lawmakers know you support legislation to expand harm reduction infrastructure, decriminalize personal drug possession and use, authorize overdose prevention sites, and enact other evidence-based, life-saving policies. 

Community Safety and Policing Reforms 

Though we continue working to eliminate unnecessary interactions between the public and law enforcement—and strengthen accountability for police officers who violate people’s rights—numerous reform bills we supported this year did not advance. These include measures to limit racially discriminatory traffic stops (H.176) and to allow for community oversight of law enforcement (S.75).

S.6, one of the only significant police reforms passed by the legislature this year, would prevent police from using deceptive and coercive interrogation techniques on youth in Vermont. The legislation was passed with strong support in both the House and the Senate before Governor Scott vetoed it at the urging of law enforcement leaders who have consistently opposed police reform. The Vermont Senate apparently lacked the votes to support an override, sending it back to the Senate Judiciary committee to consider again next year. Police shouldn’t lie to children—or to anyone—and we will keep fighting to make police more accountable to the communities they serve.

Sometimes our legislative wins take the form of nuanced policy revisions—and that is what happened with a bill called S.4. As originally drafted, S.4 seemed to double down on failed “tough on crime” policies of recent decades, threatening to turn back the clock on many of the hard-fought protections granted to justice-involved youth. Luckily, our advocacy with allies resulted in critical changes to the bill like reducing the number of proposed situations where a juvenile would be sent to criminal court, and significantly reducing the extreme penalties proposed for landlords whose dwellings are used for drug sales and human trafficking, which could have led to unintended discrimination for people trying to find housing. 

We are continually disheartened to witness law enforcement’s vehement opposition to commonsense police reform, and a lack of legislative initiative to prioritize much-needed change. On top of that, we again saw lawmakers and public officials fail to address systemic racism in Vermont, despite repeated pledges to prioritize this work since 2020. We will continue to fight for true public safety and police accountability in the State House and in our communities.


Governor Scott and legislative leaders created a humanitarian crisis when they allowed Vermont’s emergency motel-voucher program to come to an end this summer, eliminating housing for thousands of people, without adequate alternatives in place.

Though a compromise was reached to provide additional resources, many people were left behind and much more remains to be done amid an historic housing crisis and a time when Vermont has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the country.

The ACLU and our allies will continue urging state leaders to better support all Vermont residents who have been unhoused or are facing housing insecurity, and the countless Vermonters who share these concerns for their neighbors’ well-being. Read our letter to Vermont cities and towns, urging municipalities to respect the constitutional rights of unhoused people.

We are also distributing “Know Your Rights” materials for unhoused people, their neighbors, and service providers. If you or someone you know is unsheltered or struggling with homelessness, know your rights and help us to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected.

Education equity 

Students aren't threats to be monitored—they are children who need our support. This session, we opposed a core provision in S.138, requiring all Vermont schools to create “behavioral threat assessment teams” to investigate and monitor students. Though the Senate Education Committee removed this mandate in response to our initial concerns, the House added it back in, and the bill passed through both chambers and was signed into law.

Fortunately, because of our advocacy, the mandate will not go into effect until 2025, and we persuaded lawmakers to add critical training and data collection requirements to help identify disparate impacts on students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities. Still, this bill represents a major step backwards on students’ rights and education equity.

Looking ahead 

For all the accomplishments of this legislative session, it is hard to ignore the instances in which lawmakers, the governor, and other public officials failed to sufficiently address issues that significantly affect our neighbors and communities. Withholding support for commonsense police reform, mandating harmful surveillance of students in Vermont schools, and ousting thousands of homeless Vermonters out of temporary housing—there are too many instances in which Vermont did not live up to its obligations to the people who call this state home.

And yet, even as we grapple with myriad challenges and inadequate responses from our leaders and lawmakers, we remain undaunted, and we are proud of the many significant reforms we advanced this year—with your support. We will continue advocating for change in the years ahead. 

Click here to sign up to be a volunteer with the ACLU of Vermont and get involved in our work this summer and beyond. Thank you!