The 2021 legislative session was unforgettable, if only because it was the first, and hopefully last, session where all work was done remotely. Though the virtual meeting environment presented challenges, the increased transparency and access to the legislative process was hailed as a silver lining by everyone involved, and lawmakers were able to move forward on several key policies and bring voices from across the state into the decision-making process.
We saw significant progress on a wide range of issues – voting rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, and reproductive freedom, among others. However, there is still significant work left to be done. When legislators return in January, we hope they will take up some of the critical reforms that didn’t cross the finish line and move forward with more bold and ambitious policies – to advance racial justice in local communities, reduce the footprint of law enforcement, and invest in people and communities over prisons.
Below is a summary of some of the bills we worked on this year, as well as continuing priorities for the 2022 legislative session.
S.15 Universal vote by mail (Signed into law) Following the successful implementation of universal vote by mail in the 2020 election, we joined a broad coalition effort to make vote by mail permanent in Vermont’s elections. After significant testimony, the House and Senate passed a bill that would implement universal vote by mail in future elections and allow for curing of defective ballots, an important improvement we testified in support of. Allowing the curing of defective ballots was not available in 2020, and the new provisions of the bill make it easier for Vermonters to ensure their votes can be counted.
Criminal Justice Reform
H.317 Establishing the Bureau of Racial Justice Statistics / S.97 (Summer study committee ordered) One of our top priorities this session was to get better data to help address racial disparities in the criminal legal system. This bill would help us accomplish our goals and is based on the recommendations of the Racial Disparities Advisory Panel. Unfortunately, this bill only started receiving hearings after the crossover deadline and advocates and lawmakers could not come to agreement on the structure of the bureau in time for the bill to be advanced this session. The legislature did include language in S.97 the miscellaneous judiciary bill that calls on the Racial Disparities Advisory Panel to come back with recommendations for the bureau’s structure before the start of the next session.
H.87 Sentencing reform (Passed the House, currently in Senate Judiciary) This bill would create a uniform structure for all property crimes, reduce maximum penalties on a significant number of crimes, and would raise Vermont’s felony threshold from $900 to $3000. The bill would give Vermont the highest felony threshold in the country. A very similar bill passed the House last year and stalled in the Senate after the pandemic. Once again, the House passed the bill and the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to act this year before they stopped their regular meetings for the session.
H.145 Use of force (Signed into law) This bill made minor clarifications to the groundbreaking use of force reform passed by the legislature last year. We invested significant time ensuring that any amendments to the law do not weaken use of force restrictions. We did not object to the bill as passed by the House and Senate.
S.18 Earned time (Signed into law) We had to spend significant time opposing S.18, a bill that disqualified people convicted of certain offense from earning time off their sentence for good behavior. After multiple rounds of testimony, the Senate and the House moved forward with the bill over our objections. Our advocacy helped to significantly limit the scope of the bill by removing disqualifying crimes and ensuring that this will not be applied to people who have yet to be sentenced.
S.45 Strengthening midpoint review of probation (Signed into law) This law strengthened the existing midpoint review process for people on probation and will increase the likelihood that people who have met their requirements can have their probation terminated early. This bill came out of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group and was signed into law after passing the House and Senate.
J.R.H. 6 Racism as a public health emergency (Passed the House and Senate) A joint resolution of the House and Senate, this resolution declared racism a public health emergency in Vermont. The resolution commits the legislature to “the sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems” and “coordinating work and participating in ongoing action, grounded in science and data, to eliminate race-based health disparities and eradicate systemic racism.”
H.196 Supporting the work of the Executive Director of Racial Equity (Included in final budget passed by the legislature) One of the racial justice priorities we identified to the legislature is providing adequate funding and staffing to the overworked Office of the Executive Director of Racial Equity. This bill would increase staffing for the office and provide the Executive Director of Racial Equity more support. Though the bill itself was not passed, the funding was included in the final budget passed by the House and Senate.
Proposition 2 Clarifying the prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude (Passed the Senate) This proposition amends the Vermont Constitution to make it clear that slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited. The proposition passed both the House and Senate last biennium and needs to again pass the House next session before appearing on a statewide ballot in 2022.
H.430 Expanding eligibility for Dr. Dynasaur to all income-eligible children and pregnant individuals regardless of immigration status (Signed into law) We joined a broad-based coalition calling for the expansion of Vermont’s Medicaid program to cover pregnant individuals and children regardless of immigration status. The bill passed the House and the Senate after compelling testimony from advocates and people who are directly impacted by their inability to access medical care for themselves and their children.
S.16 School discipline (Signed into law) This law bans most suspension and expulsions of students under eight in public schools. The law also establishes a task force to collect data on school discipline in Vermont and provide recommendations for how to end suspensions and expulsions for all but the most serious situations.
S.100 Universal School Meals (Passed the Senate and summer study committee ordered) As part of a broad-based coalition, we supported calls for universal school meals to be provided in Vermont’s schools. This bill would guarantee universal school breakfast to all Vermont students in the 2022-23 school year. The bill saw strong support in the House but wasn't able to make it across the finish line before the legislature adjourned. The legislature did pass a commitment to move toward full universal school meals by the 2026-27 school year in H.106, which includes a task force that must report back to the Legislature in January on how the state can implement universal school breakfast and lunch.
S.63 Prohibiting School Resource Officers (In Senate Education) This bill would prohibit school districts from hiring or retaining School Resources Officers across the state. Though the bill received significant attention when introduced, and we generated dozens of messages to senators in support, the Senate Education Committee has yet to take up the bill.
Proposition 5 (Passed the Senate) After helping pass Proposition 5 in the previous biennium, we continued our advocacy this session to ensure the question of enshrining reproductive freedoms in the Vermont Constitution goes to the voters in 2022 election. The proposition successfully passed the Senate for a second time this year. The House will now need to pass it for a second time in the 2022 legislative session for the question to be included on the 2022 ballot.