MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — A group of Vermont lawmakers are preparing to introduce a bill that would make sweeping changes at the Department of Corrections, including hiring, training, and discipline protocol. H.435, which will be introduced on the House floor on Tuesday, would also require correctional officers to wear a body camera on the job.
James Baker, Interim Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, said he supports increased oversight and has advocated for it in the past. “I think in order to have people from the outside looking in at us, we need to start a standard of accountability,” he said. “I think the vast, vast, vast majority of the people inside probations and corrections are going to meet those standards.”
If the sweeping reform bill ultimately goes into effect, the Department of Corrections (DOC) would be required to give the Vermont Criminal Justice Council the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct, and handle the certification and decertification of correctional officers.
“The concept is spot-on,” said Bill Sheets, Interim Executive Director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Council.
Sheets said the council’s 24 members bring a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, making the group ideal for DOC oversight responsibilities. He added, however, that taking it on under the current structure is a tall order.
“We always struggle with whether or not we have the capacity or capability that we need,” Sheets said. “Where we lack capacity is in legal counsel, because we share an attorney with the Attorney General’s office and he’s exceptional, but we get him about 1/12th of the time.”
Right now, the council is already handling similar oversight changes when it comes to law enforcement officers, and until recently, over two dozen cases had been backlogged.
Steve Howard, Executive Director of the Vermont State Empolyees Association, wants to ensure the council’s proposed decertification powers wouldn’t restrict labor boards or the Vermont Supreme Court from taking up a case.
“Correctional officers’ contractual rights that were earned as part of the collective bargaining agreement should not be eviscerated by the powers that are given to the criminal justice council to decertify an officer,” Howard said.
If the bill passes, there’s a December 1 deadline for DOC and the council to develop specific recommendations, but there isn’t a deadline yet for when they’d go into effect.