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Gov. Phil Scott says protecting public safety is a core tenet. But some say he has a mixed record

Phil Scott behind a podium
Phil Scott is seen here giving his 2020 gubernatorial victory speech. If elected again in 2022, Scott would serve a fourth term as Vermont's governor.

Gov. Phil Scott often says that the first priority of the government is protecting public safety. It’s a core tenant that he says has influenced his approach to numerous issues of the years, from signing Vermont’s first significant gun control laws to the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an approach Scott has taken throughout his six years in office, and it could continue if he’s elected to a fourth term in November. Legal experts, lawmakers and advocates say that Scott, who’s often lauded as being a moderate Republican, takes a more traditionally conservative view on criminal justice issues. 

They point to a slew of examples of his philosophy. Scott vetoed several criminal justice reform bills. He has mostly appointed former prosecutors as judges. He recently published a 10-point plan to address the uptick in violent crimes. And he intervened when the Chittenden County State’s Attorney dismissed three murder cases due to the defendant’s planned insanity defenses.

“He's kept an eye on focusing on promoting public safety while also doing nothing to undermine individual rights,” said Christina Nolan, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont in a recent interview. “I think that that's what you would hope for in a chief executive.”

More from Vermont Public: In high-profile & politicized murder case in Burlington, the alleged killer’s mental state is on trial

Not everyone thinks he's been successful.

“I don't think the governor has a true vision as to how the criminal justice system can be improved,” said Essex County State’s Attorney Vince Illuzzi.

Illuzzi, who’s also a former state legislator and served with Scott, doesn’t think the governor has done enough to implement policy changes he signed into law, like expanding pretrial services. The Northeast Kingdom prosecutor also thinks the governor could be doing more to strengthen the Department of Mental Health, which often works with people who are involved in the courts.

“The criminal justice system is not a part of the state's infrastructure that generates jobs, or economic activity, or income,” Illuzzi said. “And I think the governor is focusing on other areas, not the criminal justice system, which is crying out for help.”

Jaye Pershing Johnson, the governor’s general counsel, says that Scott’s tried to improve the capacity of the state’s mental health system and give law enforcement more support in that area.

“We've actually embedded mental health workers in each of the barracks across the state,” Johnson said. “We've instituted pilot programs for mobile crisis response units in the mental health area.”

Criminal justice reform advocates fault Scott for not taking more substantial steps to overhaul the system. This year, Scott vetoed three criminal justice bills: an expansion of crimes that can be expunged from people’s records, the creation of a group to study drug decriminalization, and a study of safe injection sites.

“Those three vetoes together send a complete war on drugs message at a time when the overdose crisis in Vermont is the most heartbreaking that it’s been,” said Rep. Selene Colburn, a member of the House Judiciary committee.

"Those three vetoes together send a complete war on drugs message at a time when the overdose crisis in Vermont is the most heartbreaking that it’s been."
State Rep. Selene Colburn

Scott’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, Democrat Brenda Siegel, agrees. She says that the governor is not doing enough to address the root cases of crime: mental illness and substance misuse.

“I think he's in a big way failed, because he doesn't have a broad response,” Siegel said in an interview.

Siegel thinks that the state needs to expand its approaches to the opioid crisis, including considering safe injection sites. She also thinks the state needs “dual diagnosis” facilities that can specialize in support for both mental illness and substance misuse.

“And then we need to make sure that people are housed, because we know that people with substance use disorder who are unhoused are not successful in accessing recovery,” Siegel said.

Scott has defended his approach to the opioid crisis and noted that in 2019, before the pandemic, overdose deaths were trending down. Since the pandemic started, they have skyrocketed.

But Scott doesn’t think the state should put money towards studying safe injection sites. In a debate with Siegel on Vermont Public, he said the state should stick with the methods that have already proven successful.

“I don't want to take money away from those proven — the hub-and-spoke model and so forth — that we've been successful with here in Vermont, to do something with an experiment ... in a rural state like Vermont, in particular,” he said during the debate.

More from Vermont Edition: Highlights from Vermont governor debate with Phil Scott and Brenda Siegel

Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary committee, gives the governor credit for supporting changes to the furlough program and increasing the age juvenile criminal cases would automatically be transferred to family court.

“On raise the age, some of the other initiatives, he’s certainly been more progressive than many governors and other states,” Sears said.

Sears is also supportive of Scott’s recently released plan to address the uptick in gun violence places like Burlington and Springfield. The proposal includes incentives for recently retired police officers to return to the force, increasing resources for prosecutors and improving the state’s crime data.

Nolan, the former federal prosecutor, is also impressed by Scott’s plan.

“He recognizes that we're not going to be able to coordinate local and state and federal law enforcement around issues of violent crime if the police aren't appropriately staffed,” she said.

"He recognizes that we're not going to be able to coordinate local and state and federal law enforcement around issues of violent crime if the police aren't appropriately staffed."
Christina Nolan, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont

Not everyone is on board.

“He's calling for more policing, while opposing the kinds of police reforms that are necessary to ensure that police are accountable to and thereby earn the trust of the communities that they serve,” said James Lyall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

Lyall points to the Legislature’s attempt this year to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from many claims of wrongdoing. The bill, which had support from powerful legislators, was strongly opposed by the Scott administration. Lawmakers backed off the bill and opted to study the issue instead.

Lyall says the governor deserves some credit for allowing a stricter police use of force standard to become law in 2020. But now, Lyall thinks Scott is no longer interested in broader criminal justice or police reforms.

“The governor appears to be increasingly out of step with where Vermonters are on these issues, and out of touch with the many interrelated challenges facing our communities,” Lyall said.

More from Vermont Public: How qualified immunity acts as a barrier to accountability for alleged police brutality

Johnson, the governor’s general counsel, says that those critical of the governor’s record aren’t looking at the totality of his six years in office. She points to several policies, including his refusal to cooperate with a Trump-era immigration crackdown and signing the state’s first major gun control laws in 2018.

“Those things either aren't on people's radar or have fallen off that radar easily enough when you're committed to a certain way of thinking about the governor and how he does business,” Johnson said.

One area that's garnered less public scrutiny is Scott’s judicial appointments. Scott has touted his record of putting women on the bench, including appointing the first woman of color to the state supreme court. He once sent a list of potential judges back to the judicial nominating committee, implied the group was discriminating against women, and suggested they get implicit bias training, according to Seven Days.

"He needs to meet with the different groups that combined, form the criminal justice and juvenile protection system. And really get to the heart of why the dots are not being connected."
Vince Illuzzi, Essex County State's Attorney

But there’s less diversity in the professional experience of the judges that Scott’s appointed. Most of Scott’s judicial appointments have worked as prosecutors, including two who were current state’s attorneys and two longtime deputy state’s attorneys. Only one has had experience working as a public defender.

The overrepresentation of prosecutors could create a sense of imbalance on the judicial bench, said Jessica Brown, assistant professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School, and former public defender in Chittenden County.

“It leaves me with the impression that Gov. Scott's view of the justice system is very [traditional] ... like the only route to responding to harmful conduct in our communities is through the traditional system of prosecuting people and punishing them,” Brown said.

Johnson, with the Scott administration, says the governor doesn’t have a “litmus test” when it comes to judicial appointments.

“To the extent there's a criticism that we're appointing prosecutors, I would say the names have come to us as well-qualified candidates,” she said.

For Illuzzi, the Essex County State’s Attorney, he hopes that if Scott wins another term, he will make an effort to be directly involved with criminal justice policy.

“He needs to meet with the different groups that combined form the criminal justice and juvenile protection system,” Illuzzi said. “And really get to the heart of why the dots are not being connected.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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