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Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.

Capitol Recap: Vermont lawmakers propose dozens of new positions for court system 'in crisis'

A gray building stands in the snow. a sign reads "111 State Street. Vermont Supreme Court. Court Administrator."
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Vermont judicial officials say a workforce shortage and backlog of cases is making difficult for the state's court system to operate efficiently.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers agree that improving public safety should be a top priority in Montpelier this year, but they’re at odds over how to accomplish that goal.

House lawmakers say the judicial system is suffering from a workforce shortage that’s prevented courts, prosecutors and public defenders from resolving criminal cases in a timely manner. And they’ve approved legislation that would add about 35 new positions in the Vermont Judiciary, Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, and the Office of the Defender General.

“We cannot continue to prosecute cases with levels of resources as they are. It will just be impossible.”
John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs

Democratic legislators want to increase taxes on corporations to pay for the $7 million in salaries and benefits the proposal would add to the government rolls.

“What we need most is for our courts to function most effectively,” said South Burlington Rep. Martin LaLonde.

Scott, however, has vowed to oppose any plan that requires an increase in taxes or fees. And he said this week that the state can address growing concerns about public safety issues by increasing penalties for repeat offenders and squeezing operational efficiencies from the courts.

“We don’t have an efficient court system because I believe we don’t hold people accountable enough and make sure that they show up in court,” Scott said.

"In crisis”

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, said the judicial system is suffering from years of financial neglect. And he said the public safety issues many Vermont communities are contending with are a symptom of that underfunding.

A man in a suit and tie speaks at a podium.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
John Campbell, commissioner of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, says the public safety system is struggling from years of financial neglect.

“Vermont’s criminal justice system, it’s in crisis right now,” Campbell told Vermont Public. “The safety of our communities is being called into question because criminals are not being held accountable for their actions in what I would consider a timely fashion.”

That lack of accountability, according to Campbell, derives from an imbalance between the number of cases streaming into Vermont courts, and the number of court staff, prosecutors and public defenders available to resolve them.

“The result is frustration and total disillusionment within our teams, and also I think in communities around the state,” he said.

Campbell said the average caseload for deputy state’s attorneys in Vermont is now at 350 to 400 cases.

“And there’s going to get to the point where it’s almost like, ‘OK, well, what crimes do you not want us to prosecute?’ Because we can’t do it,” he said. “We cannot continue to prosecute cases with levels of resources as they are. It will just be impossible.”

A woman with gray-blonde hair speaks into a mic. She is seated at a wooden table.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Teri Corsones, the state court administrator, seen here during a testimony in the Senate on Jan. 17, says a workforce shortage in Vermont's court system has contributed to the backlog of cases.

Teri Corsones, the court administrator for the Vermont Judiciary, said lack of human resources in county courtrooms has contributed to a backlog of 16,000 criminal cases, many of which have been pending for years.

The House bill would provide the judiciary with about 17 new positions, including judicial assistants, technology analysts and security officers.

“So that we can handle the case processing on new cases that are coming in, as well as making every effort to reduce the backlog that grew up during [the pandemic],” Corsones told Vermont Public.

Without the additional resources, she said, it will be difficult for the judiciary to administer justice at a pace that lawmakers and the public demand.

“It would be very difficult to accomplish what we feel we need to accomplish to support our mission, and that is timely and efficient court operations,” Corsones said.

“Deterrence value”

LaLonde, the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the workforce shortages that are delaying the judicial process are contributing to the criminal behavior that’s made public safety such a flashpoint in Montpelier this year.

LaLonde said expert witnesses have told his committee that in order for judicial sanctions to have a deterrent effect on future behavior, they need to be imposed as soon as possible after the crime is perpetrated.

At current clearance rates, according to LaLonde, it’ll take Vermont more than a decade to resolve the 16,000 outstanding criminal cases in its court backlog. And he said that last year, fewer than 50% of new misdemeanor charges were resolved within six months after the alleged crime occurred.

“Those numbers mean that for many individuals alleged to have committed criminal offenses, the consequences are far removed from the original offense, diminishing any deterrence value,” he said. “The Legislature has an effective lever to address this issue, and that is the state’s budget.”

Timely accountability

The largely party-line vote on the legislation reflected concern among House Republicans and the governor about the economic effects of increasing taxes on corporations.

The bill, if enacted into law, would give Vermont the highest top marginal corporate income tax rate in the nation.

“When we raise up the taxes for corporations, they’re going to look elsewhere.”
House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy

“We need corporations to stay in this state so they can employ our Vermonters in this state,” said House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy. “When we raise up the taxes for corporations, they’re going to look elsewhere.”

Though Scott supports some new spending on public safety — his budget proposal in January, for instance, called for two new judgeship positions — he said he’s dubious about the number of new positions the House wants to create. And he said the more effective, and financially responsible, approach to public safety is to hold offenders to account when they flout court-imposed conditions, or fail to show up for court hearings.

Vermont's governor, at a podium, in a striped tie and dark blazer
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott said bail reform and operational efficiencies — not new spending — are the keys to improving public safety.

“We don’t have an efficient court system because I believe we don’t hold people accountable enough and make sure that they show up in court. That’s why we asked for … undoing some of the bail reforms we put into place,” Scott said at a recent media briefing. “I’m not as excited about adding … positions to the court system.”

Lawmakers are pursuing some of the bail reforms that Scott has asked for. However, lawmakers such as Orwell Rep. Joseph Andriano, a Democrat, say public safety relies on a system that has human resources sufficient to the task.

“So we can reach a point when a person is charged with a crime, they will have their case heard as soon as humanly possible, not years down the road,” Andriano said.

Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means, said she thinks businesses will gladly pay a premium to locate in a state that prioritizes the public safety of its employees and its customers.

“In the last few years, the No. 1 thing I’ve heard from businesses in my town ... is they want us to do something about access to justice and the speed of the court system … in order to make our communities both be safer and feel safer,” Kornheiser said. “They want to know that we have well-functioning communities. And they’re willing to invest in it.”

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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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