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Scott administration wants to 'pause' plan to send 19-year-olds through the juvenile court system

A photo of a person sitting at a desk
Peter Hirschfeld
Mary Anne Owen at her desk at the Return House. Owen runs a 10-bed residential facility in Barre City that serves young offenders between the ages of 18 and 27.

The Scott administration will soon ask lawmakers to hit the “pause” button on a law that would change the way Vermont handles 19- and 20-year-old criminal offenders.

Last year, Vermont became the first state in the country to treat 18-year-olds as juvenile offenders. And starting next summer, 19-year-old offenders are slated to get routed through the juvenile system as well.

The law that ushered in these changes is known as “Raise the Age,” and it’s part of a broader effort to rehabilitate young offenders by replacing prison sentences with counseling and other services.

But members of the Scott administration say that when the Legislature reconvenes in January, they’ll be asking lawmakers to put the statute on hold, because some young offenders, they say, are too dangerous to be treated as juveniles.

“There was a level of dangerousness there that we do not have the expertise to manage as a juvenile system,” Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, told VPR.

“We haven’t had anybody commit another crime while they’ve been here — we’ve been very fortunate in that.”
Mary Alice Owen, the Return House

Examples of Vermont’s reform-minded approach to handling young offenders is playing out at places like the Return House in Barre, where executive director Mary Anne Owen has a warm smile for everyone who walks through the door.

It’s the kind of welcome that most of the young men who come here aren’t generally accustomed to.

“Many of them have not been exposed to what we would call 'normal' looks like, or feels like, or how you’re spoken to when it’s normal,” Owen said recently.

The Return House, or "the House” as it’s known by residents, is part of the Washington County Youth Services Bureau, and it houses young men between the ages of 18 and 27, some of whom have been charged with serious felonies.

There are no judgments from Owen though.

“They’re human beings. And you get to know the human inside that body that did whatever it did. And that to me is where I fall — I always fall on the humanity,” Owen said. “A second chance, let’s try it. And a third and a fourth.”

There are rules, including no booze or drugs (aside from tobacco), or smart phones in the bedroom. The men have to make at least one communal dinner a week. They also have to attend counseling, and abide by whatever other conditions a judge may have issued.

Owen said there’s an overarching philosophy that governs her approach.

“It’s really called positive youth development, meeting people where they are, realizing that the brain does not develop until 26 and over, and understanding that sometimes things have to be repetitive in order to be successful,” Owen said. “And also that missteps are part of recovery.”

And she said it seems to be working.

“We haven’t had anybody commit another crime while they’ve been here — we’ve been very fortunate in that,” Owen said.

A two-story gray building with cars in the parking lot
Peter Hirschfeld
The Return House, in Barre City, where young offenders live while receiving counseling and other services.

Brown, however, said the state’s overall record with young offenders hasn’t been quite as unblemished as the Return House’s.

“What those small number of cases do has presented a fairly significant public safety challenge with a level of dangerousness that was not anticipated when this law was being contemplated,” Brown said.

That law, passed in 2018, is known as Raise the Age. Last July marked the first phase of implementation, when the age for jurisdiction in juvenile court rose to 18 years old.

The Raise the Age law will bring 19-year-olds under the juvenile umbrella in July of 2022. In 2024, the age cutoff is scheduled to jump to 20.

But Brown now wants to hold off on giving 19- and 20-years-olds the presumption of family court proceedings.

“And that’s what we’re saying, is: 'Let’s slow down, and let’s reevaluate,'” he said.

Reevaluate, because some of the teenage offenders coming into the youth system, according to Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling, aren’t appropriate for juvenile treatment.

“We’re not talking about people who are handing off a baggy of this or a dime bag of that,” Schirling said. “They’re embedded in organized, violent criminal syndicates, for lack of a better description, that are operating in multiple states.”

Those cases, Schirling said, make up a tiny fraction of the thousands of young offenders processed under two legal tracks. One is Raise the Age. The other is known as the Youth Offender Status law, which allows for people as old as 22 to go through confidential proceedings in family court, instead of the adult court system.

According to Schirling and Brown, four people processed under the Youth Offender Status program have committed “Big 12” felonieswhile under the supervision of the Department for Children and Families.

“There was a level of dangerousness there that we do not have the expertise to manage as a juvenile system."
Sean Brown, Department for Children and Families Commissioner

Not only does the Scott administration want to pause the Raise the Age statute, it also wants to revise the youth offender program: Instead of letting prosecutors and judges decide who’s eligible for youth offender status, Brown wants to use an assessment tool.

“We believe we can address that by having this dangerousness assessment completed that would indicate whether that youth might be more appropriate in the adult system or the juvenile system,” Brown said.

Rory Thibault, who serves as state’s attorney in Washington County, said all of Vermont’s 14 elected county prosecutors got together recently to discuss priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

“Among one of the hot topics of course was Raise the Age and youthful offender,” Thibault said.

Thibault said state’s attorneys on the whole aren’t terribly worried about Raise the Age jumping to 19 years old next July. They do, he said, have some concerns about the youthful offender program.

Thibault doesn’t think the solution lies in a new quantitative assessment tool.

“Every tool inherently has its own biases and own issues,” he said.

Thibault suggests the state instead create a new path through the criminal justice system. It would allow the state to process people between the age of 19 and 25 as adults, but give them the confidentiality that comes in the juvenile system.

Thibault says the Department for Children and Families is already overwhelmed with its child welfare mission. And he says asking it to help supervise young offenders often requires resources the department just doesn’t have.

Thibault said the proposal might mean that more young offenders are charged as adults, and held in the custody of the Department of Corrections. But he said the confidentiality provision would maintain one of the core reasons for why the youthful offender program exists.

“Which is to allow young offenders the opportunity not to have and suffer the lifelong consequences of poor decisions early in life,” he said.

Jay Diaz, with the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, opposes that idea.

He said the most crucial component of Raise the Age and youthful offender programs, and the reason it’s so successful in reducing rates of recidivism, is that it keeps young people from coming under the custody of the Department of Corrections, and serving time in prison.

“It’s a dangerous place for young people,” Diaz said. “Typically when they go into a prison setting, they come out worse.”

And instead of overhauling the system because of a small number of cases, Diaz said the state should figure out a better way to deal with the offenders who are falling through the cracks.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

Corrected: October 6, 2021 at 10:28 AM EDT
The name of the executive director of the Return House is Mary Anne Owen.
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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