House rejects civil commitment bill

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(Host) The House has rejected a plan to allow the state to keep sexually violent offenders in prison beyond their release date. Backers of the proposal argue it’s needed to protect the public from dangerous people.

Opponents say the plan has some serious constitutional problems.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) In recent weeks, the issue of civil commitment has set off a very controversial and highly partisan debate at the Statehouse. Governor Jim Douglas, and House Republican leaders are strongly backing the plan and they’ve have issued scathing criticisms of any Democrat who doesn’t support it.

However in a bi-partisan vote, members of the House Judiciary committee decided last Friday that there are too many unanswered questions about the plan and they voted to study the bill over the summer.

Under this bill, the state could keep violent sexual offenders in custody when their prison term is over if officials believe the individual still poses a threat to public safety.

Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright, said the proposal is needed to protect the public from violent predators. Wright says the recent release of murderer, Kent Hanson, is one of three cases in the last year where the civil commitment provision could have been used.

(Wright) “Three cases where repeat untreated violent offenders were released back into society. Madame Speaker, the first priority of government must be to protect our citizens. Implementation of this law will allow for review and possible commitment for these dangerous predators. This is an important and powerful tool for law enforcement and the courts to better protect women, children, and all citizens of our state.”

(Kinzel) Hartford Rep. Michael Kainen is the vice chairman of the House Judiciary committee.

Kainen says the proposal lacks some basic details. He says the Douglas Administration has provided no money for the additional incarceration and it hasn’t identified any place to keep the individuals. Kainen says there are also some serious civil liberties concerns that need to be studied.

(Kainen) “Civil commitment is preventive detention. We’re confining someone based on what we think he might do, not what he’s done. We would be locking up a few people to prevent a few unspecified crimes that we think they may commit sometime in the future. This is what I would call the civil liberties argument I think it’s a legitimate argument.”

(Kinzel) After rejecting the civil commitment plan, the House gave its strong support to the underlying legislation which expands the state’s DNA data base, increases the number of criminals who will be listed on Vermont’s Internet Sex Offenders Registry and provides new penalties for people who are convicted of aggravated stalking.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel.

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