Montpelier — As lawmakers explore ways to reduce the state’s incarcerated population, they’re mulling improvements to a program that aims to divert many from the court system.
Three years ago, the Legislature passed a bill creating the pretrial services system, which involves a voluntary screening designed to flag potential mental health or substance abuse issues before someone is charged with a crime.
The statewide program had a bumpy start. Though pretrial monitors were in place in October 2015, problems slowed implementation in various counties. In September, the program moved from the Department of Corrections to the Attorney General’s Office.
At a hearing on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General TJ Donovan was optimistic about the future of the program. He said he believes it is possible to create more uniformity in how the system is run and utilized across Vermont’s 14 counties.
“I think it’s achievable,” said Donovan, who took over the post this month.
As Chittenden County state’s attorney, Donovan oversaw the creation and establishment of a diversion program in the county that was the model for the statewide program.
Donovan said he will meet with Vermont’s state’s attorneys in an effort to build consensus around a list of lower-level crimes for which there will be a presumption they will be referred to a court diversion program.
“The key point is uniformity, equal access to justice, while maintaining prosecutorial discretion and local control at the county level,” Donovan said.
He said the attorney general’s office won’t seek to replace local authority in prosecuting crimes but will endeavor to “provide technical assistance” to prosecutors to help them better use the system.
For the system to function, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges need to be more aware of the services available, he said.
He believes his office will be able to help build support within communities to help the pretrial services program function fully in every county.
Willa Farrell, who heads the division of the Attorney General’s Office that oversees the program, said every county is covered by a pretrial monitor and that the monitors have completed assessments in each of those counties.
In nine counties, prosecutors have used that information to refer people facing potential charges to some sort of service or alternative, she said.
She added that it may take awhile for Vermont to embrace the program.
“We’re talking about culture change, and that takes time,” Farrell said.
Defender General Matt Valerio said that from his perspective, only three counties have well-functioning pretrial programs. Defense attorneys are skeptical in some counties about having clients undergo the voluntary screenings and evaluations.
“There’s no perception that there’s any benefit to the client by having them participate in pretrial screening,” Valerio said.
In areas where the system works, like Chittenden County, defense attorneys trust that information gathered through the screenings will not be used against their clients, Valerio said.
Chief Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson said the pretrial services program is promising but may benefit from changes. Expectations were high, he noted.
“I think we expected too much of this program too soon,” Grearson said.
John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, noted that the justice system operates with a strong degree of local control, and state’s attorneys answer to their local constituencies in the county.
Prosecutors weigh many factors when deciding how to deal with a particular offense, he said, including whether the person has committed many other offenses. Resources also vary between regions, he said.
Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said after the meeting that he is considering ways the Legislature can encourage wider utilization of the program.
“It’s having growing pains,” Sears said.
He said he is disappointed that some counties have not embraced the system more fully. In addition to Donovan’s efforts to work with county prosecutors, he is going to explore legislative options to “give a little nudge” to counties that are not fully embracing the program.