Local News

Alan J. Keays, VTDigger: Pot, parentage and prisoners in Judiciary spotlight

By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger

The House Judiciary Committee isn’t wasting any time.

On Day 1 of the 2018 legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 3, the panel will get to work on H.511, known as the marijuana legalization bill.

Other matters the Senate and House Judiciary committees are expected to take up during the session include policies regarding Vermont’s aging incarcerated population and mental health care for those behind bars.

Marijuana legalization
First for the House Judiciary Committee, on the opening day agenda, is the marijuana legislation.

If it passes and Gov. Phil Scott signs it, the bill would make Vermont the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use through legislation, rather than by voter initiative.

However, a move to suspend the rules so the House could take up the bill at that veto session failed to gain the needed three-quarters majority. House Republicans as well as some Democrats opposed expediting the process.

During the last session, Scott vetoed S.22, a bill that would have permitted possession of small amounts of pot and the cultivation of some marijuana plants. The governor did provide suggestions on ways the bill could be changed to gain his support.

That led to the latest proposal, contained in H.511, which kept the initial possession and cultivation provisions of the earlier legislation, but also created criminal penalties for using pot in a vehicle with children and increased penalties for providing marijuana to anyone underage.

The bill was a result of negotiations involving the governor’s administration, Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and House Judiciary Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.

That’s the bill that will be before the House panel Wednesday morning.

Scott, speaking in November on Vermont Public Radio, said he would stand by his commitment to sign that bill should it reach his desk.

“I don’t think that was a new proclamation,” Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokesperson, said of his comments shortly after that VPR interview. “They came to a compromise, and he said he would support the compromise at that time, and he has maintained that throughout.”

Asked last week if he was aware of any possible changes to the legislation, Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, referred the question to Grad. She could not be reached for comment.

However, Conquest did say that given the amount of testimony taken in the past on the issue, he didn’t foresee sweeping alterations.

“I think we’ll see if there’s support in the House to pass basically what we passed last year,” he said. “That’s my sense.”

Sears said he’s waiting to see what happens with the marijuana legislation in the House.

As for setting up a regulatory and tax system for retail sales of marijuana, both Sears and Conquest said they were waiting for recommendations from a commission the governor created in September to address that issue and others. The panel is also looking at impaired drivers and highway safety. Some of its recommendations are expected by Jan. 15.

New standard of parentage?
Conquest said other issues on the judiciary and criminal justice front this session include:
• Increasing the number of drug and alcohol treatment courts in the state.
• Ensuring the judicial branch has a “sufficient budget” to carry out its constitutional duties and reduce the backlog of court cases in the system.
• Revising Vermont’s parentage statutes.

In a November the Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling in what it said was its third case in the past decade on the subject. The cases involved whether someone who is not related biologically to the child, has not legally adopted the child and is not married to the child’s legal parent may also be considered a legal parent of the child.

The latest ruling chastised the Legislature for failing to update and clarify Vermont’s parentage laws in recognition of changing family structures.

“In the absence of guidance from the Legislature on this question, this Court must continue to resolve these cases as they arise,” wrote Justice Beth Robinson.

Last session lawmakers created a parentage study committee. That panel in October sent its report to the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

According to that report, “most states now recognize some form of ‘de facto’ parents.” The report proposes legislation based on a Maine law, which creates a standard for determining when a person not otherwise considered a legal parent can be declared one.

Grad, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a previous interview that passing such a law is a priority for her.

Sears, on the Senate side, said he expects his committee to take up a host of matters this session, including updates to Vermont’s probate laws.

“It’s not sexy, it’s not something that garners a lot of attention, but it needs to be done,” the senator said.

Corrections needs
Sears also talked of improving mental health care for those incarcerated in Vermont.

“We need to decide whether or not we’re going to have forensic units within our corrections system,” he said. “It’s becoming clear that people who are sentenced and have significant mental health issues, that really creates problems for the corrections system. You either need to create a forensic unit or you need to create a larger state hospital with a forensic unit.”

Dealing with an increasingly aging incarcerated population is another issue on the legislative agenda, Sears said.

“It’s a reflection of our longer sentences for some pretty heinous crimes,” the senator said. ”I think part of the solution would be finding compassionate ways to deal with them toward their end-of-life situations, that could even involve a nursing home-type place.”

He added, “You’re going to have to create something within the Corrections Department for that geriatric group.”

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