The Vermont legislature adjourned last week, bringing the 2022 legislative session to a close. The ACLU of Vermont engaged legislators on a wider range of civil liberties issues than ever before, both advancing positive reforms and helping quash harmful proposals. With our allies, we helped introduce proactive civil liberties legislation, tracked more than one hundred bills, and testified numerous times before House and Senate Committees.
With your support, we made significant and historic advances in criminal law reform, reproductive liberty, and immigrants’ rights. At the same time, it is hard to overlook the legislature’s failure to advance any meaningful police reforms this year, with multiple proposals reduced to summer studies or abandoned entirely.
Key takeaways from this session
Division of Racial Justice Statistics (H.546): Good public policy requires good information. Without data, our criminal legal system cannot address persistent racial disparities and other negative outcomes, which is why comprehensive data collection from across our criminal legal system has long been a top priority.
Thankfully, a bill to close the data gaps in our system passed the legislature this session and is heading to the Governor’s desk for his signature. This bill makes significant improvements to our current system by creating a division of racial justice statistics that will collect and analyze data related to racial justice in Vermont. With this information, the legislature can better address the racial disparities that still pervade Vermont’s legal system.
Furlough and community supervision (S.127): In 2019, Vermont embarked on a Justice Reinvestment process to help state leaders build a smarter criminal legal system. From that process, we learned that nearly 80% of new admissions to prison in 2018 had resulted from violations of conditions of community supervision, and we worked with the legislature to ensure that people being returned to prison for violations had the ability to challenge these decisions in court.
Since then, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in the number of people being incarcerated for violations of community supervision. In 2018 and 2019, we saw an average of 1362 people returned to prison for furlough violations. After the implementation of Justice Reinvestment legislation, that number dropped to 268 in 2021 -- an 80% reduction.
These policy changes kept more Vermonters united with their families and able to continue working and participating in their home communities. S.127 contained technical fixes to support further implementation of this initiative. This is just one more example of the positive impact that smarter justice policies can have on our criminal legal system and the people affected by it.
Sentencing (H.87, H.399, H.475, H.505): Throughout the biennium, the House 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.
Along 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. Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary committee determined it did not have time to consider all of these reforms.
Civil arrests at courthouses (S.140): When immigration agents are allowed to conduct arrests in courthouses, courts cannot operate fairly and effectively. People cannot access justice when they do not feel safe appearing in person. S.140 addresses these harms by prohibiting immigration arrests in Vermont courthouses.
Vermont has actually prohibited this practice for more than 200 years. But with no meaningful remedies for law enforcement violations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested people for civil violations at Vermont courthouses. S.140 creates a right of action for people who have had their rights violated and provides the opportunity for them to collect damages and attorneys’ fees. We are extremely happy to see that this legislation received strong support from both the House and Senate and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.
Law Enforcement Accountability
Studies, studies, and more studies: Due primarily to the obstruction and opposition of state law enforcement leaders, several police reforms bills have been gutted and reduced to a collection of studies. A VTDigger headline from May 4th accurately summed up the legislature’s work on police reform: “Another police reform bill watered down with another study”.
The fate of these bills has called into question the extent of Vermont’s stated commitment to reimagine policing and address systemic racism – and underscore how much more we have to do to ensure that the voices of Vermont communities impacted by overpolicing and racial profiling are heard in the state legislature.
Ending qualified immunity (S.254): S.254 would have eliminated qualified immunity, making it easier for victims of police misconduct to get justice in civil court – a proposal supported by three in four Vermonters. But after intense police opposition, the version passed by the House and Senate 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 that the legislature has more information to act on it next year. We will be closely watching for the results of this study and continue advocating for this important reform in 2023.
Reforming policing practices (H.635, S.250 & H.533): A bill that would change how police handle minor traffic offenses (H.635,), a bill to increase police accountability (S.250), and a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture (H.533) also met similar fates, with most of their provisions modified from requiring changes to mandating studies for future consideration.
While we are disappointed with these short-term setbacks, we know this is a long-term fight, and we are committed to redoubling our efforts in the coming year, advancing newer and bolder police reform legislation, and continuing to hold police accountable when they violate Vermonters’ civil rights.
Reproductive Liberty Amendment
Proposition 5: The right to decide if and when to become a parent is critical to an individual’s dignity and well-being. Despite unprecedented attacks on reproductive rights around the country and at the Supreme Court, Vermont is leading the way in defending this fundamental liberty.
In January, we testified in support of Proposition 5, the Reproductive Liberty Amendment, and celebrated the historic moment when it passed the House, making its way to the ballot in November
It's now in Vermonters’ hands. Voters will have the opportunity to make Vermont the first state to explicitly enshrine reproductive liberty in our state constitution by passing the Reproductive Liberty Amendment.
Restrictions on public funds being sent to religious schools (S.219): For the past two years the Vermont legislature has been reexamining how the state can comply with its obligations to ensure public funds are not being used for religious indoctrination while also allowing students to freely exercise their religious beliefs in an educational context.
Due to the changing legal landscape regarding a state’s ability to limit public funds to religious schools, this has proven to be an especially complicated issue,.How Vermont proceeds could have implications beyond our borders. Given this uncertainty, and the fact that a pending Supreme Court decision due out this summer will shed light on the issue, we helped convince the legislature to revisit the bill next year.
While we are proud of many of these reforms, we know there is so much work left to be done and are excited to work to build the grassroots support necessary for meaningful progress in the coming session. Thank you to the many supporters who mobilized to make their voices heard. Your efforts continue to advance and defend the civil liberties of everyone who calls this state home.