Op - Ed
May 20, 2016

Legislative wrap: more than “housekeeping”

By Maxine Grad and Willem Jewett

It may be accurate to observe that Governor Shumlin’s accomplishments during his final legislative session have been modest but it goes a bit too far to cast off the work of the General Assembly as “an uninspired, housekeeping session that was remarkable for how few initiatives lawmakers tackled,” as VTDigger did May 7, 2016.

While Anne Galloway and VTDigger have rightfully won praise for dogged investigative journalism on the Jay/Burke EB-5 scam, in this case she could have taken a day or two to read the bills that we passed.

When we entered the Legislature we were taught that the work of the Legislature is done in committee. We are going to focus our comments on the work of the House Judiciary Committee because that is where we have spent the biennium serving as Chair and Vice-Chair.

Let’s take a look at juvenile justice.

For 30 years we have subjected many, many kids to a lifetime of limitations arising from carrying a criminal record with them through life. This year we came to our senses and brought 16- and 17-year-olds who commit offenses back into the Juvenile Courts. In doing this Vermont has caught up with reforms that have been progressing for some years in other states. Given the conclusive evidence that defendants treated as juveniles rather than as adults are far less likely to re-offend, more likely to hold down long-term employment, more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to rely on public support in adulthood, and less likely to become addicted to illegal substances, we would suggest that it is our discarded policy which is “uninspired” and that not having a criminal record will be far more than “housekeeping” for the hundreds of kids who will benefit from H.95 every year.

Let’s also take a look at the work we did on our badly broken system of enforcing driving offenses.

Until Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan conducted a “driver restoration day” in Burlington last year, everyone was comfortable sweeping this embarrassment under the rug. Almost 30,000 suspensions arising from pre-1990 tickets that were charred from a fire; but no one said a word. Many more tens of thousands of Vermonters caught in an administrative system that piled offense on top of offense until the cost of getting right with the law was no longer realistic. This has been known to insiders for years but no one has done a thing (or even said a word) for years; that is, until this year. In H.571 we provided a path out of the DLS maze for tens of thousand Vermonters. Call it housekeeping if you want; we think those that can drive legally as a result may have a different opinion.

How about privacy?

It is clear that Vermonters are unwilling to concede their privacy to government in this era of emerging technology. In S.155 we strongly defended personal privacy against the combined power of technology and government. We created rules around electronic privacy. We regulated the use of drones by law enforcement and we closed the door on the possibility that the government could track Vermonters’ movements through the use of ALPR’s (Automated License Plate Readers) in the future. Our work on S.155 has demonstrated that the Legislature will need continued vigilance to stand against an erosion of privacy brought to us all by emerging technology in the digital age; that is something more than “nothing burger.”

That’s a bunch of important work but we still had time to:

  • Respond to the murder of DCF employee Laura Sobel last summer with a crime of “Criminal Threatening” and a heightened penalty for assault of DCF employees (H.154).
  • Set a course for greater transparency by requiring all administrative rules to be published in one place so that all Vermonters can be aware of the laws and regulations that they are subject to.
  • Continue our corrections reforms by requiring an examination of the gender bias that exists in the use of jail cells because, yes, we do put women in jail for offenses that a man would never go to jail for (including bad checks).

And that is just some of the work we did in the Judiciary Committee. If this disciplined response to the needs of Vermonters is “housekeeping,” so be it. We think this is the work that people want, need and expect in this era of rising suspicion of our systems of self-governance, and we are proud of our committee’s work.

Maxine Grad and Willem Jewett were chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Judiciary Committee for this legislative session.

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