Scott vetoes 2 criminal justice reform bills

  • FILE- In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Republican Vermont Gov. Phil Scott smiles during an election night rally party in Burlington, Vt. Scott announced, Thursday, May 28, 2020, that he is running for re-election, but won't hire staff, actively campaign or raise money until the current state of emergency because of the coronavirus is lifted. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Published: 5/21/2022 3:04:36 PM
Modified: 5/21/2022 3:04:25 PM

Gov. Phil Scott has vetoed two criminal justice reform bills, one to expand eligibility to wipe out criminal histories and the other to study reforming state drug laws.

Scott’s vetoes, announced late Thursday evening, extend his record-setting veto total to 32 over his nearly six years in office — far outpacing any other governor in state history. Former Gov. Howard Dean is closest at 21 vetoes over 12 years in office.

Scott took action on seven bills Thursday, vetoing two, allowing two to become law without his signature and signing three others into law.

Since lawmakers adjourned earlier this month without booking a veto session, they will not get a chance to vote on overriding Scott’s vetoes.

H.534, which passed on voice votes in the Senate and House, would have expanded eligibility to remove nonviolent crimes from a person’s record.

Almost all misdemeanor convictions, except violent crimes, would have been eligible for being expunged from court records, along with some felonies, including certain drug offenses.

Scott, in his veto letter to lawmakers, wrote that he had public safety concerns with the bill.

“Vermont is currently experiencing a significant spike in violent crime, with most being drug-related,” the governor wrote. “From my perspective, this bill seeks to make offenses relating to possessing, selling, cultivating, dispensing and transporting dangerous, illicit and highly addictive drugs — as well as the use of fraud or deceit to obtain these dangerous drugs — expungeable offenses.”

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, who sponsored the bill, said Friday she was disappointed by the governor’s action.

“This bill was an important step in justice reform,” said Grad, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m sorry it was vetoed. I’m sorry that we can’t help a number of people get back on track with their lives and give them a second chance and really help them thrive in the community.”

Grad said criminal convictions can be barriers to people seeking jobs, education, housing and loans.

“These crimes are crimes that are eligible for expungement; it’s not automatic,” Grad said of the offenses addressed by the legislation. Prosecutors and judges would also have been involved in the process, she said.

H.505, which also passed on voice votes, would have created a Drug Use Standards Advisory Board to determine benchmarks for personal use dosage and personal use supply and make recommendations to the Vermont Sentencing Commission and Legislature for any changes.

“It places no limits on which drugs can be contemplated for legalization or the amounts,” Scott wrote in his veto letter to the Legislature, “and while rightly saying we need to view substance abuse as a public health matter — a point where I agree — it includes absolutely no recognition of the often-disastrous health and safety impacts of using drugs like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and more.”

The legislation called for the advisory board to include “experts in the fields of general and mental health care, substance use disorder treatment, and drug user communities.”

Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, a sponsor of H.505, said Friday the veto came as a surprise to him.

“It’s fairly straightforward,” LaLonde said of the bill. “It’s setting up an ability to get better information to make better decisions on what the penalties should be for possession of different weights of drugs.”

Any change in law, he added, would still need to go through the Legislature.

“What we’re trying to get at is what I would call defelonization of possession charges, so that an individual who is just a user and somebody who may need treatment is not treated as a felon,” he said.

The bill would also have changed the law so that powdered and crack cocaine would be treated the same.

“The current law would impose a higher penalty for crack cocaine than powdered cocaine,” LaLonde said. “Really, that disparity has in the past resulted in disparate impacts to Black communities.”

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, issued a statement Friday afternoon calling the bills vetoed by the governor “well-balanced” and critical to being “a more criminally justice-minded state.”

“If the governor continues to veto bills that Vermonters are counting on for a more equitable and just future,” the speaker added, “I simply do not know how we can make the progress we all know is critically needed for the health and well-being of future generations of Vermonters.”

James Lyall, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a statement Friday slamming the governor’s decision to veto H.505, adding that Scott deferred to law enforcement leaders.

“By giving police — and not public health experts — final say over drug policy,” Lyall said, “the governor appears more interested in continuing the failed war on drugs than in pursuing meaningful public health solutions, criminal law reform, and racial justice.”

Also Thursday, the governor signed into the law the following bills:

H.287, which sets minimum requirements for certain health care facilities’ patient financial assistance policies and provides patients with medical debt protections.

H.500, which prohibits the sale and distribution of mercury lamps.

H.553, which makes domestic partners eligible for reimbursement from the Victims Compensation Program.

Scott also announced Thursday he was letting two bills become law without his signature:

H.523, setting policies regulating the use and disposal of hydrofluorocarbons.

H.744, changing Burlington’s city charter to allow for ranked choice voting.

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