Skip to main content

TRANSCRIPT: Governor Phil Scott Highlights Public Safety Priorities at Weekly Press Conference

February 14, 2024

Montpelier, Vt. – At his weekly press conference today, Governor Phil Scott reiterated his call for the Legislature to prioritize public safety this session. He highlighted proposals from his Administration currently being considered by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

“I’ve always believed public safety should be the top priority of every government and it’s critical we get it right,” said Governor Scott. “ We hear from law enforcement, municipal leaders, business owners and community members about their significant concerns about rising crime. This is not unique to Vermont, but it does impact our reputation as one of the safest states, and there are things we can do to reverse these harmful trends.”

The Governor’s proposals include addressing accountability for repeat offenders, strengthening and modernizing our drug trafficking laws, investments in public safety and prevention measures, and more.

In addition to policy changes, the Governor’s budget proposal also makes investments in the judiciary for two new judges to address increased demand and backlogs, as well as making permanent 20 mental health workers embedded in our State Police barracks.

The Governor’s budget also grows base spending for the Judiciary and Department of States Attorneys and Sheriffs by about 5%, significantly more than the roughly 3% for other State departments.

A full transcript of the Governor’s remarks can be found below.

You can also watch the press conference by clicking here.

GOVERNOR SCOTT: Good afternoon and thanks for being here today.

During my State of the State and Budget Address, I outlined my priorities for this session: affordability, housing, and public safety.

These are the issues I hear about from Vermonters every single day, and it’s our job in Montpelier to address them head on.

Last week, I talked about housing and highlighted what I’m seeing – or maybe what I’m not seeing – in certain committees.

Vermonters have made it clear: they want us to make it less expensive, faster, and easier to restore or build the housing we desperately need to help families and revitalize communities.

This week, I want to talk about public safety.

I’ve always believed public safety should be the top priority of every government. And I appreciate the work the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are doing on these issues, but it’s critical we get it right.

Because like housing, we can’t allow bills that fail to meet the moment, and especially ones that move us in the wrong direction.

We hear from law enforcement, municipal leaders, business owners, and retirees about their significant concerns about rising crime. Now, this is not unique to Vermont, but it does impact our reputation as one of the safest states. And there are things we can do to reverse these harmful trends.

Because the fact is, from high profile murders and gun crimes related to drugs and gangs, to persistent so-called low-level crimes,  like simple assault, disorderly conduct, violations of abuse orders, larceny, retail theft, unlawful mischief and more, these are the crimes that leave community members and local businesses feeling uneasy and unsafe.

Data from the Council of State Governments has shown Vermont’s violent crime has steadily increased since at least 2007.

This is reality, not perception.

So it’s clear to me and to many Vermonters that we need to do something different. Which is why we’ve proposed a number of steps to the Legislature.

Some have described my approach as “tough on crime” but the alternative is being soft on crime. So I want to be clear, I’m not talking about going back to the approach of the 80s and 90s,  or some wild swing to the right.

Again, I’m just asking lawmakers to meet me in the middle.

Criminal justice reform has been important, but we have to address unintended consequences, and where it’s fallen short, we need to be willing to change course.

First, we need to focus on repeat offenses.

You’ve all heard stories about people being picked up by law enforcement, only to be right back on the street committing the same crimes over and over again.

These aren’t just anecdotes, it’s the reality we face due in part to reforms that have reduced accountability including: conditions of release that don’t have the consequences needed to make them effective;  our decision to effectively remove bail as a tool  to get people to appear in court; juvenile justice changes, which have weakened the ability of our police and prosecutors to keep our communities safe;  and more.

To put the challenge in perspective, we had over 5,000 arrest warrants for “failure to appear” issued last year.  And over 12,000 of our 21,000 criminal dockets involve repeat offenders.

So, we’ve proposed a number of initiatives to make sure people show up for court.

We also know many crimes are fueled by drug trafficking, so we need to modernize our  drug crimes to take into account new and deadly combinations of drugs.

Now, again, to be clear, I’m not talking about walking away from those struggling with addiction and substance use disorder. We’ll continue to focus on the four legs of the stool: prevention, treatment, recovery, and enforcement.

Because without enforcement, we can’t slow down the deadly supply of highly addictive, cheap, and deadly fentanyl and xylazine, which have taken over much of the market.

As we’ve told lawmakers, we must update current law to make sure those selling and trafficking these dangerous drugs are held accountable.

We also need to strengthen our ability to prosecute when death results from these sales. 

One problem we have now is the defense of “willful ignorance.”  Dealers claim they didn’t know the drugs they were selling contained deadly fentanyl.  They should just assume everything they’re selling is deadly.

Again, this is just one leg of the stool. We’ve also proposed increased investment in prevention, treatment and recovery, all while focusing on root causes of crime, addiction and mental health, because there’s no silver bullet.

We also need to delay the “raise the age” provision, which has put older, more violent offenders into our DCF system and created a number of unintended consequences that harm, rather than help, our youth.

Most notably, traffickers are preying on young adults, using them because they know accountability is less likely.

As I said in my Budget Address, we moved forward with this policy before we put the systems in place to handle the increased caseloads of younger adult offenders.

Now, last week a reporter pointed out that some legislators want to “call our bluff” and move forward, despite DCF testimony that they don’t have the resources. So let me be clear, we’re not bluffing, and pushing something through to prove a point, while under resourcing a department, or expecting us to produce workers who simply don’t exist, should not be acceptable. This isn’t a game.

Finally, as I’ve argued in the past, we need to move to a system of universal sealing instead of expungements, with access for criminal justice purposes. 

Completely erasing criminal records makes no sense, especially when it comes to our collective concerns about repeat offenders, as well as gun safety.

Sealing accomplishes our goal, so past mistakes don’t limit someone’s ability to get a job or housing.

These are just some of what we’re asking the Legislature to address.

And if they don’t want to listen to me, they should reach out to their police chiefs, first responders, businesses, and community members.

Now is the time to be realistic, pragmatic and responsive.

We should learn from the failed experiments in places like San Fransico and Oregon, where even they are thinking of repealing many of the measures they’ve put in place.