Courts & Corrections

Legislation envisions racial justice oversight board

Advocates are pushing for lawmakers to take up a bill creating an independent board to oversee implementation of racial justice reforms across the state.

The legislation would establish a 12-person board, including members to represent communities of color in the state, as well as representatives of the attorney general, other players in the criminal court system, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kiah Morris Kevin Christie
Reps. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, and Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, are co-sponsors of H.492. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
The board would review the implementation of racial justice initiatives in Vermont, including data collection and implicit bias policies and trainings.

The panel is proposed in two parallel pieces of legislation — H.492 in the House and S.116 in the Senate.

Reps. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, and Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, co-sponsors of the House bill, encouraged lawmakers to support the measure Thursday.

Morris said the oversight board would fortify laws the state has already adopted.

“We passed these wonderful bills, looking and demanding for racial justice and looking at tracking how racial inequalities are occurring throughout our education systems, within housing, discrimination in employment, a number of different areas as well as throughout our justice system,” Morris said. “But we don’t have a way of coalescing that information and ensuring that the work is actually being done.”

Mark Hughes, of the group Justice For All, has been a key advocate behind the bill.

“We as people of color are vulnerable, and we are counting on you to keep us safe,” Hughes said.

The oversight panel would be focusing on implicit bias in the criminal justice system in general, “not just the police,” Hughes said. The purview would include prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and the Department of Corrections.

“This is a system issue,” Hughes said.

In the future, the board’s scope could be expanded to cover issues beyond the justice system, including racial disparities in housing, education and access to health care, he said.

The measure has endorsements from key officials, including House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Attorney General TJ Donovan.

“While this bill may not solve all the problems, this is an unequivocal statement that this is a priority and a value of the state of Vermont to treat everybody with respect, everybody with dignity and give everybody the opportunity for justice,” Donovan said.

Donovan sees significant racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system.

“The disparity is real, and it has to be addressed,” he said.

Mary Brown Guillory, of the Champlain area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the state has a long way to go to improve racial justice.

Racial disparities in school discipline and the criminal justice system are substantial and troubling, she said. She thinks the board is a good idea but said more needs to be done.

“However, we already have laws on the books where individuals are not accountable, so it makes no sense to build more petitions when we’re not even observing the law,” Guillory said.

The Legislature is approaching a key deadline Friday when committees in each chamber are expected to complete work on policy bills in order to allow time for the other body to address them.

So far, neither the House nor Senate has taken up the proposal.

However, the chairs of both the House and Senate Judiciary committees said they still expect to work on it this year.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House committee, said her panel likely will deal with H.492 next week in conjunction with work relating to fair and impartial policing.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate committee, said he supports the spirit of the bill and will be ready to work on it when the House completes its version.

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