By Alan J. Keays / VTDigger
Members of the Scott administration say a delay is needed to implement an initiative to increase the age young people can automatically be prosecuted behind closed doors in family court.
They say beefed-up programs and services should be in place to help handle the influx of cases, and additional guardrails have to be set up to ensure public safety before next summer when a law expands to send the cases of 19-year-olds to the juvenile system.
Jaye Pershing Johnson, Gov. Phil Scott’s general counsel, and Sean Brown, the commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families, both testified Friday during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
They said they backed the intention of the legislation, but that more work still needs to be done to ensure its proper implementation.
“We would support proposals which push back the statutory ‘raise the age’ triggers until such time as we have the systems, including data systems, services and programs in place to not only address the needs of the offenders we are attempting to help, but also consider the needs of the victims and the health and safety of our communities,” Johnson said.
Scott signed Act 201, known as the Raise the Age Law, in 2018, moving all but the most serious criminal cases for 18-year-olds out of the adult criminal court and into the juvenile system. That age is set to increase to age 19 next July, and then age 20 in 2024.
Act 201 makes exceptions for those charged with the most serious crimes, referred to as the “Big 12,” such as murder and sexual assault.
Vermont’s Youthful Offender Law also allows for certain cases against those under 22 to be kept secret and handled in family court.
VPR first reported last week about the administration’s desire to “pause” the Raise the Age rollout. On Friday, Johnson and Brown spoke to the senators on the panel about the initiative during a session held over Zoom.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and the committee’s chair, told Brown that if the implementation is paused, he would like that pause to be for a specific amount of time and not open-ended.
“I would have in mind putting off the 19-years-old [threshold] for a certain amount of time as a beginning point,” Sears said, adding that he would like to address proposals for changes early on in the next legislative session set to start in January.
Scott earlier this year raised concerns with the implementation of the Raise the Age initiative when he vetoed a separate bill. That legislation, S.107, would have barred police from releasing information about the initial arrest of a person under 19 in most cases. Under the legislation, the age would have risen to 20 next year.
The governor, in a written explanation of his veto, said that before taking the steps outlined in the legislation, more work needed to be done to provide young adults with needed services around rehabilitation, housing and other supports.
Brown, the DCF commissioner, reiterated Friday that work still needs to be done. He said that the Covid-19 pandemic has presented challenges by reducing the capacity and availability of certain programs and services.
Brown said that finding enough staff for programs and services, as well as a slowdown in the court system during the pandemic, have also created difficulties.
Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, a committee member, asked during the hearing if the governor is including any money in his upcoming budget proposal to help address those concerns.
Brown said that he didn’t want to get “over his skis” in revealing too much about what might be coming from the administration on that front.
“We’re putting the final touches on some of those proposals now,” Brown said, “and I hope by the next meeting, or soon thereafter, we’ll be in a position to kind of preview those.”
White also said that any delay should come with a new “trigger date” for the further implementation of the Raise the Age initiative because waiting for a time when all the resources are in place may not come.
“We never have enough resources,” she said.
Brown told the committee about the need to make sure that the right programs and resources are in place to deal with the most complex cases and those that pose the greatest risk to public safety.
“I really fear that we’re going to just disregard that 95% of the kids … could be benefiting from this because we can’t figure out how to solve the complex cases,” White said.