Vermont Offers Alternative to Jail for Low-Risk Offenders With Addiction, Mental Health Issues

By Paul Gaita 01/05/17

Through a contracted agreement, low-level offenders are offered treatment instead of incarceration.

Vermont flag flapping in the wind.

In an attempt to stem the tide of drug-related charges choking its courts due to overwhelming cases of opioid addiction, the state of Vermont adopted a pre-trial program that sends repeat low-risk offenders with drug addiction or mental health issues into treatment as an alternative to jail.

The program, which requires participants to adhere to a contract with the state attorney's office to complete treatment and avoid drug use in order to have charges dismissed, has prompted other states to launch initiatives designed to reduce crime by treating the addiction.  

The pre-trial program was borne out of Governor Pete Shumlin's 2014 State of the State address, in which he outlined in stark terms the toll that opioid addiction had taken on the Green Mountain State: a 770% increase in treatment for opioids since 2000 and double the number of deaths from heroin overdose in a single year between 2012 and 2013.

To combat this plague, Vermont lawmakers launched an array of programs, from increased treatment and access to naloxone to a program that would divert drug offenders from incarceration to treatment.

Act 195 established the pre-trial program in 2014, which screened individuals with repeated arrests or citations for misdemeanor and/or felony drug charges to undergo voluntary screening for mental health and substance use, as well as potential risk of non-appearance and threat to public safety.

Upon reviewing the results, the state's attorney can recommend to a judge that the individual be considered for the program. Upon the judge's approval, the participant would sign a contract accepting responsibility for the charge and then undergo the requirements of the contract, from mental health and substance use disorder treatment to alternative justice programs.

Any additional criminal behavior can revive prosecution and possible incarceration. Completion of the program allows the participant to tackle their addiction issues and keep their record clear of criminal charges.

The program is not without its detractors. "For us to just turn the cheek and say, 'Okay, now you have a clean slate,' I don't think that's right," said Jeffrey Billings, police chief of Ludlow, Vermont.

But for law enforcement and health officials, the pre-trial programs in various states have shown results: participants in Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program were found to be 58% less likely to face additional arrests than others, while just 142 of the 650 participants in Jefferson County, Kentucky's program were arrested on new charges.

Louisville prosecutor John Balenovich considers those numbers a success. "Right now we're losing, and we're losing bad," he said.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.