New Vt. bail reform measures coming in July

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Bail reform measures signed into law last month mean fewer low-level offenders in Vermont will be required to post bail, but advocates and lawyers say it will impact a small group of people in the criminal justice system.

"We believe it's an important first step towards bail reform. It makes some modest but important changes to Vermont's bail system so people are not incarcerated simply because they're poor," said James Lyall with the ACLU of Vermont.

Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill last month that caps bail for low-level, nonviolent crimes at $200. It kicks in on July 1.

Vermont defender General Matthew Valerio isn't sure the changes are needed. He says only a small fraction of defendants will be impacted. "There's nothing wrong with Vermont's current bail system. We have some of the best bail laws in the nation. The issues seem to arise with implementation," he said.

Valerio says each county has judges and prosecutors that approach bail in different ways. "Judges seem to become cultured to whatever those counties are doing. So some counties are harsh on bail, other counties are less harsh on bail," he said.

The new law also requires judges to determine a defendant's financial means before imposing bail.

"I think it's not consistent with Vermont values to hold somebody just on the simple reason they can't make bail payment or secure a bond," said Washington County State's Attorney Rory Thibault. He says bail should only be used to ensure a defendant appears in court.

The new law changes some legal language. Instead of allowing bail for the possibility of non-appearance, it now states the person must be a flight risk. "My concern is that if we don't have the ability to impose bail in cases where we do need it to secure appearance that justice will be delayed, and then that's justice denied to victims," Thibault said.

The ACLU wants to expand the bail cap next year to cover more people. "We'd like to see these kinds of policies applied to a wider range of crimes," Lyall said.

Officials say bail is very rare for misdemeanor offenses, but the new law will ensure that it is used only when needed, and set at appropriate amounts.