As I write this column, it looks like we have three weeks left in the current legislative session. The Speaker of the House has indicated that we will most likely adjourn May 9 or 10. Because we can see adjournment on the horizon, things are moving very quickly in Montpelier.
Most of the House bills are now in the Senate, and House members are working on Senate bills. The Capital Construction Budget Adjustment Bill that my committee worked on for most of January and February is now in the Senate. The Senate Institutions Committee has made some changes to the bill, and my committee is working with the Senate to see if we can resolve those differences before the bill is voted out of committee and on to the Senate floor. This is often how House and Senate committees work to prevent the need for a committee of conference to resolve conflicting issues.
One part of the Senate’s version of the Capital Bill is the question of Statehouse security. While the House was working on the funding of the bill, the Senate was taking a close look at the security needs in the Capitol Building. Most of you know that the Vermont Statehouse is called “The Peoples’ House” because there are almost no security measures at the building. People can walk in anytime the building is open and go to the House or Senate chambers to watch the proceedings. Vermonters are also welcome in any committee room to listen to testimony and debate. We do bring in the state police and other security when the governor offers his State of the State and his budget address. But on a regular basis, the three-man Statehouse police force is the only real security detail in the Capitol. We are very proud of the openness of our Capitol.
But in light of the many incidents that have happened in the past few years, such as the school shootings in other states and the bombings in Boston last year, it is necessary to face up to the fact that, as much as we think of Vermont as a safe place, we may not be immune to a similar disaster. Much discussion has taken place this session as to how the Legislature should look at security needs. To that end, legislative leadership has decided to contract with a nationally recognized security company, based here in Vermont, to take a concerted look at the security needs of the Capitol Complex. Funding for the security study will come from the Capital Construction Bill, and the study will begin before the Legislature adjourns for the year. That will give the security company the opportunity to see the Capitol with the hundreds of people in it each day and to assess what safety measures need to be taken. I don’t anticipate security cameras in every hallway and room, nor do I anticipate metal detectors at the door. What I am looking for is a security plan that everyone understands and will follow in case of a disruptive event. The security report will be delivered to the Legislature later this year.
My legislative committee is called “Corrections and Institutions.” “Institutions” deals with the construction of state buildings. “Corrections” means we deal with corrections policy. We are not the committee that determines what laws will send you to prison (that is the Judiciary Committee); we help determine what happens after you are arrested. To that end we have been working on several Senate bills dealing with corrections that have come over to the House. As I mentioned in my March column, the most comprehensive bill is S.295, which is referred to the “rapid intervention/sequential intercept” bill. S.295 is being studied by three committees of the Legislature – Judiciary, Human Services, and Corrections and Institutions. Studies have shown that incarceration of low-risk offenders or placement of those offenders in programs or supervision designed for high-risk offenders may actually increase the likelihood of an offender returning again and again to prison. The premise is that the risk and needs of a person charged with or convicted of a criminal offense should determine the appropriate way to address that person’s criminal behavior. S.295 will allow the courts and the Department of Corrections to take an in-depth look at low-risk offenders and what can be done to prevent an ongoing return to incarceration.
My committee is also looking at S.291, which explores the creation of secure transitional facilities so offenders may return to their home communities, and that housing in these facilities include programs for employment, training, transportation, and other appropriate services. A slightly different corrections bill, S.218, looks at contraband taken into corrections facilities by both visitors and Department of Corrections employees, and ways to prevent such occurrances. A fourth Senate bill that my committee is looking at is S.296, which proposes to clarify the Defender General’s duty to investigate issues related to the health, safety and welfare of inmates in correctional facilities. In case you don’t know who the “Defender General” is, he is the head of the department of public defenders, those lawyers who are appointed to represent a defendant who does not have his or her own attorney.
Vermont’s prison population is greater than the number of prison beds in the state and consequently over 500 Vermonters are incarcerated out of state. The Senate bills on which my committee is working may help to alleviate the prison overcrowding and offer help to low-risk offenders by helping them avoid incarceration.
I would like to move away from the work I am doing in Montpelier to clear up some misperceptions about my future. Many people seem to think that because I have stepped down from my work on the Essex Selectboard, I have ended my public service. That is not so. While I have left the selectboard, I plan, with the help of the voters of my district, to return to the Legislature next year. I will be running for re-election to the House of Representatives in November and hope to have the support of the many people who have voted for me in the past.
I anticipate many of you will continue to have questions about what is going on in Montpelier in the weeks remaining in the session. I will be happy to answer any of your questions as time permits. I look forward to hearing from you with your concerns. Those questions or comments can be about legislative issues or problems you may be having with various departments of state government. You can call me at 878-3514 or you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. I will get back to you as soon as I can. I appreciate the faith you have in me to represent you in Montpelier and I will work diligently to keep the trust you have given me.
Linda Myers represents Essex Town in the Vermont House of Representatives.