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Gov. Scott wants to improve public safety. Lawmakers, justice officials say his budget falls short

A placard on a wall to the right of a door at the Vermont Statehouse reads, "judiciary."
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public file
Rep. Martin LaLonde, the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said there’s a disconnect between Scott’s rhetoric on public safety and the budget he presented to lawmakers last month.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott says improving public safety in Vermont is one of his top priorities this year, but Democratic lawmakers say his proposed budget underfunds the judicial system needed to hold offenders to account.

The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs told lawmakers this week that Scott’s fiscal year 2025 budget proposal would force them to eliminate as many as nine positions next year. The Vermont Judiciary, meanwhile, said Scott’s spending plan doesn’t fund 15 new staff positions it needs to manage the nearly 17,000 criminal cases pending in county courts.

South Burlington Rep. Martin LaLonde, the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said there’s a disconnect between Scott’s rhetoric on public safety and the budget he presented to lawmakers last month.

“He’s talking the talk but not walking the walk as far as what needs to be done,” LaLonde said.

Scott dedicated his weekly media briefing Wednesday to the issue of public safety and reiterated his push for harsher sanctions for repeat offenders.

“Some have described my approach as tough on crime,” Scott said. “But the alternative is being soft on crime.”

More from Vermont Public: Gov. Scott has a plan to address crime. The ACLU of Vermont strongly opposes it

LaLonde said he generally appreciates Scott elevating the issue of public safety.

“But when I’ve seen what the governor’s recommended budget is, that budget does not align with that priority that he said,” LaLonde said.

John Campbell, commissioner of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said his department will need at least $900,000 more than the governor recommended in order to avoid eliminating personnel next year. And he said in order to make meaningful progress on the backlog in Vermont courts, county prosecutors will need an additional 10 deputy state’s attorney positions statewide.

“The whole criminal justice system, not just the prosecution, but also the defense and judiciary, has not been a major priority of the Legislature over the past 15 or 20 years,” Campbell said. “In order to meet the needs that we’re seeing … to try to make a dent in it, we need resources.”

Defender General Matt Valerio, whose office oversees public defenders in the state, said the governor’s recommended budget falls $2 million short of what the office needs to sustain current operational capacity.

Campbell said that in order to reduce recidivism and improve overall public safety in Vermont, the court system needs to resolve cases as quickly as possible after the alleged offense. The average caseload for individual prosecuting attorneys now exceeds 300 at 10 of the state’s county courthouses.

“And when you’re handling that many prosecutions, there’s no way in the world you can be creative," Campbell said. "There’s no way in the world you’re going to be able to work with defendants to try to find out, what is it that’s driving them? What is it that’s bringing them into the system? ... And how can we deal with that? You don’t have the time. It’s basically just treading water.”

Scott said Wednesday that his budget proposal for the judicial system represents the best his administration could do with limited state revenues.

“We have to live within our means,” he said.

Scott said he’s open to conversations about increasing funding for the judiciary. But he said that money would have to come from somewhere else in the state budget.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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