Q + A with Co-Chief of the Community Justice Division, David Scherr

Attorney General T.J. Donovan has been spearheading criminal justice reform, most recently calling for reforms to the bail system so low-income Vermonters don’t get stuck in jail for low-level crimes. In 2016 he created the Community Justice Division to protect public safety, increase fairness, promote equal access to justice, and reduce incarceration. He was also a leading advocate for the passage of Act 61, which expanded pre-trial services and diversion. Act 61, among other provisions, created the Tamarack Program, a treatment-oriented diversion program aimed at adults with serious mental health and substance abuse issues. Since Act 61 took effect in July of 2017 the rate of referrals to diversion programs has more than doubled statewide, from 10% to 24%.

We caught up with Co-Chief of the Community Justice Division David Scherr to get more background on why criminal justice reform matters and how we’re making a difference here in Vermont.

David Scherr, Co-Chief of the Community Justice Division.

What is the reason for the creation of the Community Justice Division? Why is this issue so important to the Attorney General?

The Attorney General created the Community Justice Division to focus on the issues of criminal justice reform. The division seeks to increase public safety by promoting equal access to alternative justice programs and increasing fairness in the application of the law. The division does everything from administering the statewide Diversion and Pretrial Services Programs to creating new legislation that supports criminal justice reform efforts—including initiatives like bail reform.

These are key issues for the Attorney General. He made them a cornerstone of his platform during his candidacy, and he created this new division to enact real reform.

What work is going on nationally on criminal justice reform? How does Vermont fit into that?

There is an amazing amount of work being done nationally on criminal justice reform. States across the country, and the federal government, are making significant changes in how they approach crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. Nationwide people recognize that mass incarceration is an unjust and ineffective way of dealing with crime—particularly nonviolent crime. It is also systemically racist, incarcerating African American men at disproportionate rates.

The same problems exist in Vermont and need Vermont solutions. Vermont has the most disproportionate rate of incarcerating African American people in the nation. Our office is working hard to provide equal access to justice and strongly supports efforts to root out systemic racism in our criminal and juvenile justice systems.

What inspired you to work in criminal justice reform?

Before I arrived at the Attorney General’s Office I worked mostly as a public defender based in Burlington while working on cases all over the state. In my role as a public defender I saw firsthand the challenges, inequities, and unfairness of our criminal justice system. The people involved in the system are largely poor, with few resources—economic or social—to provide support.

Underlying causes of behavior, like addiction and mental health issues, are not adequately addressed in the standard criminal justice system.  By assisting people with the issues that lead to offenses and recidivism we are protecting public safety by making it less likely that people will reoffend.

Although I enjoyed helping people one at a time my view of our system made me want to have a system-wide impact by changing policies and laws. The Attorney General’s office has given me a place to do that, and I am grateful.

What are the Attorney General’s Office’s goals regarding criminal justice in Vermont over the next 5-10 years? How are we getting there?

Our long-term goals are to increase public safety by having robust alternative justice systems—working in close cooperation with our public health system—to adequately address underlying causes of criminal justice involvement, and to reduce the incarcerated population to the people who really need to be there. The work we are doing presently around our Diversion and Pretrial Services programs, along with legislative and policy efforts like bail reform, will move us in the right direction.

Thanks to David Scherr for sharing his expertise today! You can follow up with any questions you might have at david.scherr@vermont.gov.

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Net Neutrality Fake Comments: Find out if You’re Affected

What would you think if you saw your name and home address on a public comment addressed to a government agency – but… you never actually wrote a comment?

That is what has happened on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s website in the online public comment space on net neutrality. Attorney General T.J. Donovan has determined that perhaps hundreds or even thousands of Vermonters may be affected by “fake comments” submitted to the FCC on this vital issue. One such Vermonter, Montpelier resident Irene Racz, was shocked to see a comment submitted to the FCC in her name opposing net neutrality – a position contrary to her actual views.

Now, the Attorney General is raising awareness about fake comments on the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rule change. His efforts follow an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who first alerted the public about tens of thousands of possible fake comments using stolen identities on the site.

Since the public comment period opened last April, Americans have submitted millions of comments—the vast majority in favor of preserving net neutrality. However, the process appears corrupted by an onslaught of fake comments. For example, news reports suggest that almost half a million fake comments have been linked with Russian email addresses.

Attorney General Donovan is calling on Vermonters to see if their names were stolen for false comments – and to report it to our office using a simple web tool if you are affected. Please check the Consumer Assistance Program’s portal to search the FCC database and the reporting tool at: https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/fake-fcc-comments

Any Vermonters who do find fake comments issued under their names should report it to our office and contact the FCC directly to request that phony comments be withdrawn. Additionally, Vermonters who have not submitted comments and wish to do so should enter them before the planned FCC net neutrality vote on December 14.

Attorney General Donovan and 12 other Attorneys General submitted comments to the FCC in July in favor of preserving net neutrality rules for a fair, free and open Internet. The current rules protect consumers by ensuring choice, transparency, and fairness. For example, it bars service providers from establishing “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for consumers depending on partnerships or premiums.

Your voice is essential to this process.

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Protecting Vermonters One Blocked Call at a Time

Before we get started, raise your hand if you’ve ever received a scam call. Everyone, right?

CAP is looking to get better solutions in the hands of Vermonters to fight robocalls. CAP is studying various robocall blocking options to protect Vermonters from this scourge.

First, CAP obtained a grant from The State Center to test call-blocking devices for seniors, who are often the targets of scams.  CAP provided 115 call-blocking devices free-of-charge to Vermont seniors.

CAP studied the effectiveness of these blocking devices in protecting seniors, who include some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Call-blocking devices help stop scam calls from coming through your phone line in two ways – many come preloaded with a list of recognized scam numbers that are automatically blocked from being able to call in; the devices also allow consumers to choose to block other phone numbers.

Vermonters who participated in the project reported that the call-blocking devices were useful in blocking scam calls – 72% said the devices were either “effective” or “very effective” in stopping unwanted calls. An overwhelming majority (89%) also said the devices were either “simple” or “very simple” to use. Another key finding from the project is that having a call-blocking device made the participants feel safer in answering their phones and helped to decrease the amount of stress and anxiety that scam calls had caused. You can’t put a price tag on peace of mind.

Second, in cooperation with the telecom carriers, CAP is also preparing a guide to robocall and scam call blocking options that will be released later this month.

Third, CAP continues to collect scam reports from Vermonters. CAP uses scam reports to identify the need for alerts, and to provide education and outreach. Scam reports also help CAP track the number and type of scams affecting Vermonters. Awareness is the best way to protect Vermonters from becoming victims of scams.

CAP also reports the information to the Federal Trade Commission, which has a task force on fighting robocalls. Occasionally, the information can lead to investigation of scams, but law enforcement has few tools to undertake these expensive cases.

Are you interested in call-blocking devices or other ways to stop unwanted calls? The FTC has information available at their web-site.

Our office has also set up a scam alert system to provide consumers with information about new scams and scam trends. If you would like to sign up, visit our web-site or give CAP a call.

Always feel free to contact CAP to report scam calls you are receiving. Our office can be reached at 1.800.649.2424 (toll free VT) or 802.656.3183.

Contributing Writer: Sarah Anders

Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin