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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vermont Enters New Era In Drug Policy With Focus On Treatment, Not Incarceration

Bob Kinzel
Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law that would implement a new program that offers treatment and not jail to some people charged with a drug offense.

Prosecutors across the state hope to implement a new program that offers treatment and not jail to some people charged with a drug offense, under a new law signed Tuesday by Gov. Peter  Shumlin.

Vermont’s new law is patterned after a successful program that’s been in place in Chittenden County for the past four years.

"This is a health care challenge. We have got to move more people into treatment." - Gov. Peter Shumlin

The basic idea is to screen people who have been charged with the possession of opiates or heroin and offer them a strict treatment option as an alternative to being incarcerated. At the same time, the new law also imposes tougher penalties on drug dealers.

Shumlin devoted his entire state of the state address in January to this issue. He says he’s very pleased that lawmakers responded to his plan.

“This is a health care challenge. We’ve got to move more people into treatment. We also have to be tougher on the dealers and the people who bring this poison into Vermont,” said Shumlin. “We’ve got to give our prosecutors the tools that they need to be able to make the right judgment but also move folks into treatment whenever and wherever possible.”

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand has long been an advocate of providing more treatment options to some drug offenders. He now works as the governor’s liaison to the Public Safety Department. He says the new approach represents a major change in public policy.

“For more than 40 years in the name of the war on drugs we have arrested and prosecuted, convicted and punished people who use drugs believing that they are other people,” said Sand. “These are not other people, these are our people, this is us.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan implemented a similar approach in 2010. He says there’s no doubt that it works. 

Donovan says the general recidivism rate for Vermont’s inmate population is roughly 40 percent. But the rate for more than 700 offenders who have participated in his program was only 7 percent.

“This is a devastating disease where we’re going to have relapses,” said Donovan. “But that 7 percent tells me something: that people want to get help that just don’t know how to do it.”

Donovan says the goal is to implement this approach on a statewide basis in the next few months.

“It’s fair to say that all prosecutors support this. It’s a matter of just implementing the infrastructure and deploying teams,” said Donovan. “Once the money rolls out in the next fiscal year I think we can get it done pretty quickly.”

Shumlin met with the other New England governors on Tuesday morning to develop regional strategies for opiate addiction. The governor says the new Vermont law is a model for the other states to follow.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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