New state laws fight back against out-of-state drug gangs - Vermont Daily Chronicle (2024)

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New state laws fight back against out-of-state drug gangs - Vermont Daily Chronicle (1)

by Guy Page

At his press conference last week, Gov. Phil Scott touted what he calls the biggest success story of the 2024 Legislative session: new public safety laws he and senior state officials say give our criminal justice system more tools to fight back against out-of-state drug crime.

It’s no secret that Vermont is “an easy mark” for New England and New York crime gangs, to quote VT Dept. of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs Dept. Executive Director John Campbell at the press conference. Vermont is a growing market for drugs imported from out-of-state, and has been for at least a decade. Unprecedented numbers of homeless people, overdoses and drug-related crimes (including retail theft, guns-for-drugs, kidnapping and punitive violence) paint that picture clearly.

Our justice system is lenient, compared to the federal system and surrounding states. Knowing this, drug criminals use teenagers to conduct face-to-face transactions and sometimes exact retribution against competitors or non-paying customers. The gang bosses enforcers know we lack the laws and juvy jail facilities to hold them.

Vermont criminal law has been moving away from incarceration, both before and after conviction. Pre-sentence incarceration and bail are almost impossible to impose except for cases of violence and flight risk – even if ‘social justice’ minded judges and prosecutors had a mind to use these tools, which many don’t. Thanks to repeat offenders and the Covid crash, our court system is backed up like O’Hare airport on Christmas Eve.

The drug gangs grow their base of support from ‘customers’

Like any out-of-state organization seeking to bring change to Vermont, the big city drug gangs couldn’t do this alone. They need help from the grassroots. They get it – willingly or not – from their customers.

Drug criminals needs guns, and many Vermont addicts are more than happy to trade theirs – legally obtained or otherwise – for drugs.

Drug criminals need bases of operations. Many Vermont addicts trade living space for drugs.

Vermont’s police staffing problem isn’t getting better – it’s getting worse

And while drug crime – trafficking and drug use itself, but dealers’ violence and property crimes committed by desperate customers – is up, police hiring is down. At last week’s press conference, state public safety officials reported a 23% vacancy on the state police roster. Worse, attrition exceeds hiring. Burlington Police Department also reported continued hiring woes last month.

Drug crime traced back to Mexico, and China

Vermont State Police Colonel Matthew Birmingham says out-of-state organized crime (19:40 on this YouTube video) begins with the Mexican drug cartels selling fentanyl made with precursor chemicals obtained from China.

“These are very dangerous groups that are operating around the country, starting with the drug cartels in Mexico. These are violent groups, and they’re bringing the violence to Vermont. We’re seeing it all the time here in shootings and homicides that are drug-related,” Birmingham said.

The multi-jurisdiction Vermont Drug Task Force run by VSP is “laser focused” on bringing the suppliers and supply chain “and the people who are profiting from this, and preying on victims, to justice,” said the VSP chief.

That’s the lay of the land now. Police are fighting a spirited battle. But they are losing ground to the out-of-state gangs.

New tools for judiciary

Recognizing this hard reality, the Executive Branch (Scott administration) and the Legislature worked together to give the Judiciary quite a few new tools to get tough on drug dealers.

New laws – notably S.58 and S.195 – expand pre-sentencing options and toughen sentencing for drug trafficking, use of guns in commission of felonies, and crimes committed by youth.

The Legislature expanded the use of bail. It lifted the $200 cap. Also, judges may now set bail for failure to appear in court. It’s not just about flight risk anymore.

Judges may impose other, more stringent, and hopefully more persuasive conditions of release for failure to appear.

And the Legislature created the Home Detention Program, which is “designed to provide an alternative to incarceration and reduce the number of detainees at Vermont correctional facilities by accommodating defendants who would otherwise be incarcerated or pose a significant risk to public safety.”

The State also restored the post-sentence Dept. of Corrections work crew – another more restrictive, but not quite prison, program.

Note: these Big Changes don’t include holding many more people in jail. The aim is to get people into court and to resolution, promptly. If people don’t cooperate – there will be consequences. Immediate consequences, Scott and senior officials said at the press conference.

Okay, I asked, what consequences?

Basically, more restrictive conditions of release, they said. Otherwise, their answers weren’t very specific. They hope prompt court dates and swift adjudication itself will slow down the scofflawing and unclog the backed-up court dockets.

As Campbell said, they’re hoping to make it “so that we’re not an easy mark here in Vermont.”

What else did the Legislature do for public safety?

It funded new deputy state’s attorney positions to reduce the backlog and focus more on drug trafficking.

More deputy State’s Attorneys, huh? Remembering that the Chittenden County prosecutor got her start as a deputy SA, I asked: “How are you going to make sure they are not, pardon me for saying this, clones of Sarah George, who basically don’t want to incarcerate someone anyway?”

Campbell disagreed with my characterization of George. I was told we need these new positions and they’ll be prioritizing drug crime and the catch and release epidemic.

The Legislature also classified xylazine – a horse tranquilizer known as Trank – in the same category as heroin, fentanyl and cocaine and other potent, illegal narcotics. And that’s good because about 60% of all glassine packets seized by police contain some trank.

Due to the uncertainty of outcomes expressed at the press conference, I asked Gov. Scott if he recommends people arm themselves for self-defense? (see video at 27 minutes)

His quick answer was “I don’t.” But he also said people should do what they want, and that he himself has a gun cabinet full of guns – but he stressed, they’re in the cabinet, not lying around.

None of these changes are written in stone. The public safety people at the press conference said over and over again they will be monitoring the effectiveness of these changes and be ready to propose more if needed.

Categories: Drugs and Crime

New state laws fight back against out-of-state drug gangs - Vermont Daily Chronicle (2024)

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