Vermont Legislature considering similar bill to NY law worsening opioid crisis across the lake
By Guy Page and Sun Community News
H 296, a bill in the Vermont Legislature, would eliminate cash bail for drug offenses. A similar law in New York is contributing to an increase in the opioid epidemic, the Essex County, New York prosecutor said last week.
H296 would eliminate cash bail for all crimes eligible for expungment – which, according to Act 58 passed this year, includes all but violent and sex crime felonies. Act 58 does not exempt drug crimes from expungment. Therefore, if H296 passes, bail would be waived for drug crimes.
H296 also requires the State to develop recommendations to eliminate cash bail and report racial data on pretrial detainees. H296’s sponsors include three members of the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill now resides.
Across Lake Champlain from Addison and Rutland counties, an opioid problem that officials had hoped was on the decline has resurfaced, in part, because new state law makes it harder to punish dealers and get treatment for users, Essex County Prosecutor Kristy Sprague told supervisors during their June 14 meeting.
“Every time we bring a drug dealer in, guess what? They’re released,” Sprague said. “So they’re still dealing, still making money and still causing deaths, when they need to be in jail, period.”
In 2019, the Assembly passed new law preventing pre-trial detention for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, on the grounds that poor people who could not afford cash bail were being treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than those who could.
As a result, Sprague said, only drug kingpins could be detained, while users and smaller dealers receive a ticket to appear in court at a later date.
A second problem is an increased urgency in the process of discovery, in which prosecutors must turn over to the defense evidence that they plan on using against the defendant to prove their case. Police are now “inundated with paperwork,” and can spend an entire shift just scanning documents, Sprague said.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said he’s seen an increase in drug activity over the past 12 and 18 months in his town. “This hasn’t happened overnight, but obviously part of the issue is bail reform,” he said. “It’s really exacerbated the problem. I understand addiction, but I have no sympathy for the dealers.”
Health officials say Essex County has reported seven overdose deaths so far this year, the most recent victim being 60 years of age. “A majority of the people are in their 30s or older,” Scozzafava said.
The New York coverage was first published in a June 25 news report by Tim Rowland in the Sun Community News.