Lawmakers on Wednesday struggled to decide how much detail to write into a law designed to offer a second option to alleged criminals who might benefit from substance abuse or mental health treatment instead of jail time.

S.295, known as the "risk assessment" bill has become a key focus of the Senate Judiciary Committee this session. It establishes a way that people who are arrested can be assessed before, or after, they are charged, and also attempts to crack down on burglary committed with the use of threat or a weapon.

After three hours of testimony, the committee asked its attorney to tweak the bill yet again, with the goal of voting it out of committee by the end of next week.

Discussion Wednesday centered around the testimony of an advocate who works with victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Sarah Kenney, of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said she is concerned the bill could let off the hook people accused of child pornography, voyeurism, sexual exploitation of a minor, violating a temporary protection order and other crimes.

Kenney asked that the list of offenses eligible for pre-arraignment mental health and substance abuse screenings be limited to nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies.

Her organization supports the bill in principle, she said.

During Kenney's testimony, Bobby Sand spoke up from the back of the room.


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Sand, a former state's attorney, is a policy analyst for the Department of Public Safety.

The bill does not prohibit state's attorneys from charging someone with a crime or trying accused criminals as they always have, he said. A screening would simply give prosecutors more information about a potential defendant, something that could help in setting bail, he said.

"It doesn't (prevent) the state's attorney from dealing with it as they always have," Sand said.

The bill creates the position of "compliance monitors," with whom the court can order a person to meet to ensure he or she complies with court-recommended treatment.

Sand said the committee could address Kenney's concerns by leaving it up to prosecutors or writing into the law what types of offenses should be screened when in the judicial process.

The committee said it will explore a two-pronged approach that makes people charged with nonviolent crimes eligible for pre-arraignment screenings and says more serious alleged offenders could be screened after arraignment.

Kenney and others also urged that legislators not forget crime victims, even if the alleged perpetrator isn't charged.

Judy Rex, director of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, asked that the bill specify that victims of alleged crimes be informed and eligible for restitution, as they are in cases in which someone is charged.

PENALTIES FOR BURGLARS

The late Sen. Sally Fox as well as fellow Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe and others sponsored the bill, S.295.

The concept is based on Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan's Rapid Intervention Community Court. Gov. Peter Shumlin and others have lauded Donovan's alternative justice approach as a proven way to reduce recidivism.

The second half of the bill would ramp up penalties for burglars who use or threaten to use force, or who have a weapon.

The committee debated how to structure enhanced penalties for burglars who use force or weapons, or steal from an occupied home. Officials have said there have been more burglaries in recent years because people are stealing to fuel their drug habits.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he has felt pressure from constituents to toughen property crimes.

His constituents tell him they want treatment for criminals who have drug habits but, he said "they're scared to death of what they're seeing in the state in terms of home invasions."

The draft discussed Wednesday adds 15 years onto a maximum 25-year conviction for burglary in an occupied dwelling if the burglar carries a dangerous or deadly weapon, openly or concealed, or who uses or threatens to use violence.

The committee agreed the law should specify that "occupied dwelling" means somewhere people live, even if they are not home at the time of the invasion.

Sand recommended a four-tier sentencing structure, starting with burglary in any type of building, then burglary with a weapon, burglary in an occupied dwelling, then burglary with a weapon in an occupied dwelling.

"Honestly, the enhancements make sense as a matter of legislative policy choice and as a matter of sending messages. As a practical matter there are not too many folks currently being sentenced at the max levels," Sand said.

Defender General Matthew Valerio said enhanced penalties don't necessarily deter criminals, especially those motivated by drugs.

If legislators raise penalties for break-ins when residents are home, they should lessen penalties for someone who breaks into an empty building, Valerio said.