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January 09, 2014

Shumlin Pushes Tough Penalties Along with Treatment for Drug Crime

Immediate reaction to Gov. Peter Shumlin's state of the state address yesterday focused on his declaration that drug addiction is a public health crisis that should be tackled with prevention and treatment rather than "simply doling out punishment."

Advocates for criminal justice reform were overjoyed that the governor used his bully pulpit to declare that drug crime is primarily a "health crisis," not simply a law enforcement problem.

"I think this is profound,' said State Rep. Bill Lippert, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, in an interview. "This is a really big deal. There is a fundamental shift that's been articulated."

But Shumlin's speech also included little-noticed proposals that came from the more traditional tough-on-crime playbook.

Shumlin, facing re-election in November, asked lawmakers to pass tougher sentences for out-of-state dealers who bring drugs to Vermont, long a scourge in the law enforcement community, and enhanced penalties for people who carry weapons into homes to commit crimes.

The state's law enforcement community was heartened by those requests, Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said in an interview after the speech.

"There was a strong message that came through that, for those who want to come into Vermont as a place to go after their prey, we're coming after you," Flynn said. "Vermont is not going to be a pushover. We are going to pursue you and put you in jail."

Flynn, Vermont State Police Col. Tom L'Esperance and Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling all literally stood behind Shumlin during a press conference after the speech, along with many other police officers.

But while prevention and treatment were the buzzwords of the day, Flynn said his department's support for Shumlin's speech was also due to the calls for longer prison sentences. (The governor did not provide specifics yesterday.)

"We can't treat our way out of this any more than we can arrest our way out of it," Flynn said.

Flynn, who has long voiced support for expanded treatment, equated the drug problem to a supply and demand scenario. Treatment can cut demand, but the supply, he said, can only be cut by the police's stock in trade — arrest and incarceration. 

The commissioner, a former prosecutor, also said some credit for the renewed focus on opiate problems belongs to the Vermont State Police's Drug Task Force, which has conducted a handful of high-profile "drug sweeps" in recent months, in which they simultaneously arrested dozens of people in a particular  community, such as Springfield, for drug crimes.

"It brought a realization into a number of communities that this issue is present in your community," Flynn said. "It's not their community, its your community."

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