‘We just need to look beyond just punitive measures’

‘We just need to look beyond just punitive measures’

‘I’m a strong advocate of really reforming our criminal justice system to make it genuinely fair and balanced for everybody,’ says Nader Hashim, a state trooper turned state representative

BRATTLEBORO — State Rep. Nader Hashim, from Dummerston, was elected for his first term last November and several weeks ago weighed in on his view of the legislative process as a newcomer to the arena.

We talked on March 22, at the halfway point of the legislative session, about his impressions, and we looked at some of the work he's doing as a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

One bill that Hashim has put forth out of the gate is H.342, which addresses how people accused of crimes qualify for access to legal representation.

The bill, cosponsored by Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington,, has crossed over to the Senate, where it was under consideration by the Senate Rules Committee as of April 9, when The Commons went to press.

Hashim, one of the two legislators representing the Windham-4 district of Putney, Westminster, and Dummerston in the House, is on leave from his job as a trooper with the Vermont State Police.

It's a job Hashim has had since 2011, and he says it offers him an interesting window on legislation affecting issues of crime and punishment.

Constituents can reach Hashim at [email protected] or 802-828-2228.

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Olga Peters: Nader, what is it been like now that you're kind of at the halfway point of your first session?

Nader Hashim: It's been a really amazing experience. The first two weeks were pretty overwhelming - you're dealing with tons of information coming at you from all sorts of different angles.

At the beginning, you have to accept that you're not going to be an expert and you're not going to know every single piece of information and you're going to have to rely on your colleagues and your friends and different committees to really get the information of how everything's moving.

O.P.: Has your work as a trooper for the Vermont State Police informed any of the work you're doing on the Judiciary Committee?

N.H.: Absolutely. I bring my perspective as much as I can on Judiciary. That committee, simply put, deals with cops, lawyers, judges, and our court systems, both civil and criminal.

So there's a lot of work that we do in there that doesn't necessarily pertain to law enforcement, but I really am able to bring my perspective when it comes to our criminal justice system.

I'm a strong advocate of really reforming our criminal justice system to make it genuinely fair and balanced for everybody.

O.P.: You recently had one of the bills that you cosponsored go to the floor of the house, where it received an awful lot of discussion. It has to do with providing everyone in the state who qualifies financially to receive a public defender whether they are charged with a misdemeanor or a criminal offense.

Tell us a little bit about that and tell us a little bit about the pushback you've received.

N.H.: Sure. In Vermont, if you commit a misdemeanor in which the penalty is under $1,000, you're actually not eligible for a public defender. So you either have to navigate the criminal justice system by yourself, or you have to pay thousands of dollars for a private attorney.

A lot of Vermonters just don't have that much cash on hand to handle that sort of situation. It is my belief that no matter what you do or what your status is in society, you have a right to legal counsel so that you can get a genuinely fair and balanced experience in our criminal-justice system.

I can't think of any scenario in which I would say to somebody, “Talking to a lawyer is a bad idea if you get charged with a crime.” Obviously, as a cop, I can't give people legal advice when I'm doing that work. But it's wise to retain legal counsel any time that you are involved in the criminal justice system.

This bill did get some pushback from a few legislators. Some folks were worried about the potential cost, or that this would create work for an already burdened public defender's office. And there was also some pushback regarding whether or not it would be efficient.

And so some of the concerns: the defender general's office said that this would increase the caseload by about 5 to 7 percent, spread out across the entire state. But these are cases that are actually very easy and quick for defenders to handle.

Oftentimes, these cases are actually sent through diversion, which allows people who would otherwise be unaware of the opportunity to undertake those programs, which will keep them from being burdened by the collateral consequences of having a criminal record or by the fines that they would have to pay for something for which they may even be innocent.

Sometimes people accept plea deals just to make something go away, even though the facts may actually point to them being innocent.

O.P.: And I think you hit the nail on the head of some of my concerns when I hear about people going to court for misdemeanors. Can they end up taking a deal that a) might not be in their best interests necessarily and b) might not even be necessary in general?

N.H.: Yes.

O.P.: And was that a concern you raised to your colleagues? Do they have any response to that?

N.H.: Actually, that was brought up in our Judiciary Committee, where, thankfully, it passed with a unanimous vote, which is good. And so it's going up for a third reading.

O.P.: O.K. Just for those who aren't aware of the legislative process, remind us: is that a third reading in the committee or reading on the floor? [Since our interview, that third reading took place March 27.]

N.H.: Right. Sorry about that. So we have the first reading when the bill gets introduced and then it goes to a committee. Then it gets read a second time on the floor, and this second time is when people voice their concerns and maybe offer amendments.

And then it can either go back to its original committee or go to a different one. This bill did take a quick stop in the Appropriations Committee to address any potential funding or budget issues.

So what's going to happen is they're putting what's called a sunset on this bill: an amendment in which they will come back and analyze the cost-effectiveness of this new bill in two years.

According to the defender general's testimony, it's expected that this bill won't cost them anything for the first year of its implementation. But it's also estimated that for the second year it could cost anywhere between $0 and $300,000.

You can't estimate how many people will get DUIs or how many people will get charged with disorderly conduct within the next two years.

O.P.: In your experience, or in your research for and preparation of this bill, do you have any sense of what tends to be the most common misdemeanor in Vermont?

N.H.: Off the top of my head, I don't have my paperwork right in front of me right now. But I think the most common crime in Vermont is DUI, and it might be tied with domestic assault.

O.P.: O.K. Domestic assault is a misdemeanor?

N.H.: It can be. There are different variations of it.

There is an aggravated domestic assault, but domestic assault is a misdemeanor in which the fine is under $1,000.

O.P.: O.K. Interesting. Thank you for that. So the bill's going up for a third reading. What happens after that?

N.H.: After that it will go to the Senate, and they will take testimony in their committee and do their work on it as well.

O.P.: O.K. Do you think it will pass or or at least be dealt with in this session, or will it need to go into the next legislative year?

N.H.: I'm not really 100 percent sure. I feel like it's kind of a coin toss at this moment.

O.P.: And, of course, I'm asking you to read tea leaves right there because who knows what can happen with bills as they move through the process?

I'm curious, Nader: This has been crossover week, and so you've gotten a flurry of bills from the Senate. Besides the bills you're working on in your committee, what else stands out to you as a big issue?

N.H.: We are dealing with expanding weatherization opportunities for middle-to-low-income Vermonters. And that is important in my opinion, both to address climate change and also to address the affordability of things in Vermont because as we both probably know, it's expensive to heat your home in this state.

This will require I think a 0.5-percent tax increase on certain fuels or heating.

O.P.: Yep.

N.H.: And so I'm not 100 percent sure on that number at the moment or the exact details of it because it went back into committee. So I don't know what changes they are making on it. But that has been one of the issues on our radar.

O.P.: Anything else standing out?

N.H.: Let's see. Well, going back to the Judiciary Committee, we did have the third reading for a bill pertaining to expungement. What that means is individuals who have been crime-free, for lack of a better term, for five years can petition the court to have the charge or the conviction removed from their criminal record.

Doing so opens up a whole new world of employment opportunities and lets people qualify for student loans and have access to different types of housing and so on. That's been a pretty big accomplishment for us in Judiciary.

O.P.: Let's revisit that, because I think it ties in so well to the public defender bill.

When I speak to people on the street, I encounter folks who feel if someone screws up and breaks the law, that person should be punished: “What's with all this expungement and giving them an attorney and all that stuff? They need to be punished!”

How can we expand on that discussion?

N.H.: I think that there there are some violent and serious crimes, and for the safety of society, you do need to have people in jail for a little bit - or sometimes for a long time, depending on the crime.

But for some other crimes, I think folks really need to take a step back and analyze why we are punishing somebody and what we hope to accomplish by doing so.

I think that instead of looking solely at punitive measures, we have to look at how we might prevent this crime from happening again.

Say somebody is addicted to drugs and burglarized a business or a home to finance that addiction. Yes, they absolutely need to make amends and pay restitution to the victim. But also let's figure out how to get this person off drugs and back to being a functioning and healthy person who is contributing to society.

So, simply put, we just need to look beyond just punitive measures for our criminal-justice system.

And just one more thing: I think that when we look back to expungement, we need to realize that if somebody pays their dues to society, 10 or 15 years down the road, we need to ask why they should still suffer or struggle with the consequences.

Let's say somebody was in possession of a small amount of heroin - say, 10 bags - and then they get convicted. Let's say they get on their feet, they are clean, and now they're trying to get employment 10 years later. I don't think that it's fair to that person that they should continue to suffer for that, if they are back on their feet and they haven't continued to commit any other crime.

O.P.: Yeah. In the justice system, one thing I've always struggled with is if we have this concept of “we're punishing you because you need to repay your debt to society,” then there has to be a point where the punishment stops, once that “debt” has been paid.

N.H.: When we dole out punishments for crimes, does it seem like they are in alignment with the crimes - like the “punishment fits the crime” - or are we starting to put bigger penalties across the board?

O.P.: I think that we as a society are kind of stuck on the idea that more punishment means that the crime will happen less. But we're seeing that that doesn't work, especially for drug crime. We've had the war on drugs, for example, for 50 years now - that is a long time to get something done correctly, in my opinion. And we've seen that this increase of punishment - more law and order, for lack of a better word - doesn't make things better.

But now, at the end of this 50 years, we're living in an opioid crisis and we have more people incarcerated than any other time in our history. About 60 percent of the people in our jails are dealing with drug addiction. And it's clear that taking the overly punitive approach does not fix things.

The people who are addicted to drugs aren't going to say, “Oh, I can go to jail for this. I'd better not. I'd better stop being addicted to drugs.”

Addiction doesn't work that way.

O.P.: Right. Thank you, Nader - I appreciate that. Is there anything you wanted to add or wish I had asked?

N.H.: No, I think you've covered some of the very exciting things that we're doing up in Montpelier. Every day, things are changing up there now and we're doing our best and I think we're working very well with our friends in different parties who have different beliefs and different ideas on how government should operate.

I was having a good conversation with a Republican earlier in the session, and we both said that we want what's best for Vermont but we just have different ideas on how to get there. And I think that really exemplifies how we make our approach up there in Montpelier.

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