The Senate unanimously approved a bill to create a panel that will examine systemic racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.
On a roll call vote Thursday with 29 in favor and one absent, senators gave preliminary approval to H.308. It will come up for a final vote Friday.
The bill began in the House as a proposal establishing a committee to develop a system to reclassify Vermont’s criminal statutes. The legislation passed the House in late March.
The Senate, however, significantly revised the bill so it no longer contains the reclassification study committee of the House version. Instead, it includes measures on racial justice and fair and impartial policing — answers to two bills that passed the House late last week.
Presenting the bill on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the legislation is an effort to address implicit bias in the criminal justice system, including police, attorneys and judges.
“This is not aimed at law enforcement alone, but recognizes issues present in the entire system,” White said.
Vermont has the highest rate of incarceration for adult black men in the country, she said. She referenced a study of race and traffic stops in Vermont, which found that black drivers are four times more likely to be searched after being stopped by police, even though white drivers are found to be carrying contraband at a higher rate.
The Senate’s version of H.308 establishes a 13-member committee that will review the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems and make recommendations for how the state can address racial disparities.
The bill also would require changes to the state’s current policy on fair and impartial policing.
Last summer, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council drafted a policy to serve as a model for all law enforcement agencies in the state. The policy included some elements that were deemed “nonessential,” which agencies could choose whether to adopt.
There have been some concerns that parts of the model policy that relate to immigration may be in conflict with federal law. The policy is currently being reviewed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to an official with the council.
The Senate version of H.308 requires the council to adopt a uniform policy, in which there will be no optional elements, and to ensure that it is in compliance with federal law. Law enforcement agencies would need to have their policies on fair and impartial policing updated by March.
The House passed two pieces of legislation last week on each of those subjects. One, H.492, would create a 15-member board to monitor racial disparities in systems across the state, including areas like housing, education and employment.
A separate House bill passed last week, H.523, also changes the current statewide policies on fair and impartial policing and requires a revised, uniform model policy to be in place by the beginning of 2018.
Senate lawmakers say they were squeezed because of timing. The House bills came over late last week, creating a logistical challenge because the Senate Judiciary Committee ceased meeting for the year on Friday.
White said the Senate Judiciary panel had concerns about the committee originally commissioned in H.308 and decided not to proceed with the House proposal. However, the bill could serve as a vehicle for the Senate’s approaches to the two racial justice issues.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she had not yet had a chance to review the changes the Senate made to H.308 in depth.
However, Grad said the bill as the House passed it was a step toward “achieving the justice reform that this committee is very committed to,” she said.
Currently in Vermont, there is a “patchwork” of penalties that may be given out differently based on where the case is handled in the state. A focus on reclassification of the criminal code is an important step toward ensuring justice is meted out evenly across the state, Grad said.
She also said her committee worked hard to craft its versions of the two racial justice bills.
If H.308 passes the Senate on a final vote Friday, it will go back to the House, where lawmakers may request to set up a committee of conference to iron out the differences between the versions.