Politics

Scott signs crime victim notification, expungement and marijuana bills into law

Republican Gov. Phill Scott and Democratic/Progressive candidate David Zuckerman, not seen, participate in a debate sponsored by VTDigger at the Mad River Barn in Waitsfield on Tuesday, September 29, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, called it a bill that got derailed a year ago that stayed on track during this one. It’s also a measure that a Bennington mother of a daughter slain earlier this year testified in support of in an effort, she said, to help close gaps in the criminal justice system. 

On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott signed that legislation, S.3, into law, ensuring a crime victim would know if the person accused of the crime is set free in a case where they were found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

Under legislation, the state Department of Mental Health must provide at least 10 days’ notification of the accused person’s upcoming release to the prosecutor in the county where the crime took place. That prosecutor would be obligated to notify the crime victim.

The governor announced Monday that he signed another piece of legislation, S.7. The measure adds offenses eligible for expungement and sets up a study to look at expanding that list even more. A bill that seeks to improve social equity in the state’s fledgling marijuana market, and modify the rollout of legal pot sales, was also signed into law.

S.3, in addition to increasing notification to crime victims, establishes a working group to look at the need for a forensic treatment facility in Vermont. 

“We passed a similar bill a year ago that died due to the pandemic,” Sears told his fellow senators on the virtual Senate floor when it was up for consideration last month before passing in that chamber as well as the House.

The legislation also would permit the prosecution to have its own psychiatrist examine a person charged with a crime when a court-ordered examiner has found that person incompetent to stand trial.

The bill sets aside $530,000 for the state Department of Mental Health. The legislation calls for $500,000 to contract with Vermont Legal Aid to provide legal representation and independent psychiatric evaluations for commitment proceedings, and $30,000 to support the forensic care working group.

In signing S.3 into law, Scott said Monday that the legislation takes steps to close gaps between the criminal justice and mental health systems.

“It also takes steps to ensure due process in the criminal system, protect public safety, and ensure that those experiencing mental illness receive appropriate treatment,” the governor said in a statement. 

Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers worked closely with the state Department of Mental Health on the legislation.

“It does try to make some improvements to the competency and insanity hearings and process, and it also gives victims notice,” he said Monday. 

He added that while he is often not a big fan of studies, he is in this case. 

“I think the study of whether or not Vermont should have a forensic facility is really important,” Sears said. “I think it leaves us, quite frankly, behind most states in that we don’t have a place for that small number of people who are extremely dangerous but mentally ill.” 

Kelly Carroll of Bennington, the mother of 26-year-old Emily Hamann who was attacked and killed earlier this year on a walking path in Bennington, testified this session on the legislation.

Darren Pronto, who is being charged with first-degree murder in Hamann’s death, had reportedly been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Carroll said she has since learned that Pronto had been in state mental health treatment before, including once for threatening his neighbors.

Carroll emailed a letter to lawmakers where she called on them to pass the bill, pointing to the need for Vermont to establish a forensic treatment facility and the legislation’s work in eliminating “disconnects” in the system.   

She wrote that one case should not determine law but that one case can highlight “significant disconnects in the system, and that is exactly what Emily’s murder does. Please pass S.3.”

Reached Monday, Carroll called the bill signing “fantastic” news.

“I think that the study group is going to help identify a lot of the gaps and weaknesses in the mental health system throughout the state,” she said.

Carroll said she is hopeful the legislation will result in corrections and mental health systems to collaborate more. 

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage also testified on the legislation. In an email Monday, the prosecutor called the legislation an “important first step in the process of restructuring the intersection of mental illness, criminality and public safety.”

Another bill signed into law by the governor Monday expands offenses eligible for expungement, including civil violations, such as certain traffic offenses like operating a motor vehicle without insurance or that isn’t registered, and driving without a license. 

The legislation also calls for the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee to study making more crimes eligible for expungement. 

The study, to take place during the 2021 legislative interim, will look at how to simplify the expungement process and “consider a comprehensive policy that provides an avenue for expungement or sealing of records for all or most offenses” except the most serious crimes, such as murder.  

The committee is called on to propose legislation for the 2022 legislative session regarding a policy to make “all or most” criminal history records eligible for expungement.

The marijuana bill Scott signed into law, S.25, will establish a fund to help people of color and others affected by past marijuana laws open businesses in the new pot market. 

Under a bill that became law last year, marijuana retail stores should be able to open up in Vermont as soon as October of 2022.

This year’s marijuana legislation charges state officials with designing a system of providing loans and grants to “social equity applicants,” or people who were disproportionately hurt by marijuana criminalization.

The legislation also introduces some advertising restrictions for marijuana businesses.

Other bills signed Monday by Scott include:

  • S.13, An act that creates a task force charged with coming up with an implementation plan for education finance reform recommended by researchers. The legislation temporarily lifts a tax penalty imposed on high spending school districts. 
  • S.22, An act relating to health care practitioners administering stem cell products not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  • S.47, An act relating to motor vehicle manufacturers, dealers, and warranty or service facilities.
  • S.97, An act relating to miscellaneous judiciary procedures.
  • S.115, An act relating to making miscellaneous changes in education laws.
  • S.48, An act relating to Vermont’s adoption of the interstate Nurse Licensure Compact.

Xander Landen contributed to this article. 

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