A proposal to provide more flexibility to Vermont courts to reduce prison sentences during the coronavirus pandemic has been abandoned for the time being.
Last week, Chief Superior Court Judge Brian Grearson recommended to the Senate Judiciary Committee that it allow courts — with the agreement of both prosecutors and defense attorneys — to "reduce or otherwise modify" sentences during or immediately after the coronavirus emergency declared by Gov. Phil Scott. Under current law, such modifications can typically be made only within 90 days of sentencing.
Criminal justice reform advocates have warned in recent weeks that an outbreak in the state's prison system could be especially deadly, and they have called for the courts and the Department of Corrections to release older and unwell prisoners.
The committee added Grearson's proposal to emergency legislation it's considering that would make several changes to the judicial system during the outbreak. But during a video meeting on Tuesday, senators decided to remove the provision because they worried it would become too controversial and bog down the underlying bill. They plan instead to append it to another bill, which is unlikely to move anytime soon.
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the committee, said he was particularly concerned that those who committed "certain horrific crimes" might seek sentence reductions. "I just think you'd have this outcry in the public," he said.
Since lawmakers closed the Statehouse earlier this month over coronavirus fears, legislative leaders have sought to avoid advancing bills that might court controversy — particularly as they work out the kinks of remote voting and debate.
According to Sears, the sentence reduction provision was unlikely to find support from all quarters. "I suspect you're going to run into trouble with the governor. You may even run into trouble on the Senate floor. You'll definitely run into trouble in the House," he said.
Even some who might be expected to support the measure told the committee on Tuesday that they would rather see it removed.
"There's some prosecutors who believe there's currently authority to do what we need to do to get these people out under the current circumstances based on the existing rule, the existing statute and constitutional grounds and various writs that we have," said Defender General Matthew Valerio. "And I'd rather you just leave it alone than diddle around with it and potentially limit the options that are available."
Similarly, Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) expressed concern that allowing the courts to "otherwise modify" a prisoner's sentence could have unintended consequences.
Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, told Seven Days that his organization backed the proposal. "It's one that we'd like to see the legislature put into statute so that the court can address sentences everyone agrees should be changed — not just during this emergency but going into the future," he said.
The ACLU of Vermont and other progressive groups have expressed alarm in recent weeks over the possible spread of the coronavirus within prisons. Last week, a staff member at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport tested positive for COVID-19, though Interim Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said at the time that the employee had not been in contact with prisoners.
In testimony before the legislature's Joint Rules Committee on Monday afternoon, Baker said that other staff members had since been tested but were not found to have the virus. An inmate at the Newport facility tested negative, he said, and another inmate at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield had been tested and was awaiting results in quarantine.
Baker told Joint Rules that his department had room for 10 patients to be quarantined, if necessary — five at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans and five at the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury.
If more than 10 prisoners are infected, Baker said, the department would convert a portion of the St. Johnsbury complex into a "quarantined facility" with support from the Vermont National Guard. "We're certainly hoping we don't get there, but if we do, I think we have a pretty solid plan," he said.
In recent weeks, according to Sears, the department has reduced its in-state prison population from approximately 1,640 people to 1,470.