Can we afford Governor Scott's vision for Vermont?

This commentary by James Duff Lyall was published in the Manchester Journal and in other papers.

We all want to live in healthy, safe, vibrant communities, where everyone is treated fairly, and their rights are respected. We need leaders whose vision for Vermont is consistent with those goals and with these shared values.

Looking back to the past legislative session—and looking ahead to the next—one of the defining themes has been Governor Scott’s opposition to a wide range of investments needed to build safer and more resilient communities.

That, combined with Scott’s regressive approach to police and prisons—steeped in the same ideology that brought us mass incarceration, overpolicing, and racial profiling—leaves us with a governor who is drifting further from the views, values, and needs of our communities.

This year, amid an historic housing crisis, rather than prioritizing housing solutions, the Scott administration has advanced proposals for a multi-million dollar expansion of Vermont’s prison system—even though our prison population has fallen dramatically and could be reduced further with smarter justice reforms.

The ACLU has urged legislators to reject that misguided vision and the enormous, ongoing costs it would entail. Instead, we must build on policy reforms that have already reduced Vermont’s prison population by forty percent, and which are supported by an overwhelming, cross-partisan majority of Vermonters. 

Likewise, while more than ninety percent of Vermont voters support police accountability, Governor Scott opposes popular and commonsense measures to ensure police are accountable to—and earn the trust of—the communities they serve.

This year Scott vetoed S.6, which would have barred police from using coercive interrogation tactics on Vermont youth—a practice rejected by a growing number of states because it leads to false confessions and wrongful imprisonment. Since the Vermont Senate could not muster enough votes for an override, Vermont police can still threaten and lie to Vermonters of all ages, with impunity.

Governor Scott also quietly signed legislation to subject Vermont schoolchildren to monitoring and investigations by “behavioral threat assessment teams,” including law enforcement—a policy with clear potential to violate students’ due process and privacy rights, and likely to perpetuate discrimination and stigmatization of marginalized youth.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a worsening overdose epidemic, Scott has opposed harm reduction strategies that would save lives, while advocating enhanced criminal penalties for street drugs—the exact opposite of the evidence-based, public health-centered strategies Vermont desperately needs.

Vermonters who are heartbroken by the state’s response to the opioid epidemic should urge their legislators to reject Governor Scott’s old-school approach to drug policy, which is costing lives, and instead prioritize harm reduction.

Scott also opposes—and last year vetoed—legislation that would have rescinded a racist policy of disparate sentencing for powder vs. crack cocaine, long recognized as a major driver of racial disparities.

As the governor knows, Vermont prosecutors overcharge and over-sentence Black defendants for drug crimes, and Black drivers in Vermont are disproportionately stopped, searched, and cited, year after year. The governor’s silence on these issues is telling. Just three years after Vermont committed to fighting systemic racism, it is profoundly disappointing to see that the governor has moved on.

While spending on Vermont’s criminal legal system has increased by more than 200 percent over the past four decades, to more than $500 million per year, the governor opposes the kinds of investments that would more effectively improve public safety and build more resilient and equitable communities. These include investments that could deliver affordable housing and prevent homelessness; strengthen our public schools; or provide adequate healthcare.

When it comes to investing in our communities, Governor Scott says we can’t afford it. When it comes to more policing and bigger prisons? Apparently, money is no object.

Those priorities do not align with the needs of Vermont communities, or the values Vermonters hold dear. Neither are they fiscally responsible, because the failure to invest in effective solutions will cost us more, in both the short- and long-term.

For all the governor’s talk of affordability, it’s time to ask: how much longer can we afford Governor Scott’s vision for Vermont?