In 2019, Black people were six times more likely to be jailed than white people in Vermont, even though they made up just 1.4% of the population. They were also more likely to be locked up for felony property and drug offenses.
The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments presented its latest findings to Vermont lawmakers on Thursday — two and a half years after the nonprofit organization began working with the state to address its biggest criminal justice problems.
Action toward what’s been called Justice Reinvestment has included restructuring Vermont’s community supervision program to reduce the likelihood that people will reoffend. But state leaders did not have hard data until now on how racial disparities affected prosecutions, sentencing and incarceration.
“The data for racial disparities was extremely difficult for them to uncover … our data systems in Vermont are very poor,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. His committee heard from Justice Center staffers in a remote hearing Thursday alongside the House Judiciary and House Corrections and Institutions committees.
Among the Justice Center’s key findings was that Black people were seven times as likely as white people to be charged in a case with a person listed as a victim.
Black people also were 14 times as likely to be charged in felony drug cases. And Black people who were sent to prison on felony drug cases often were charged with cocaine sale or possession. White people, on the other hand, often were charged with heroin sale or possession.
Researchers said this mirrors national trends showing that despite similar rates of drug use and sales between Black and white people, Black people had a higher likelihood of being arrested and jailed for drug offenses.
“Black people with the same type of case characteristics, the same type of individual characteristics are more likely to be sentenced to incarceration,” Sara Bastomski, research manager at the Justice Center, said at the joint committee hearing. “The results are certainly sobering.”
Researchers said the results do not substantively change when the analysis is restricted only to Vermont residents and accounts for their criminal history.
The Justice Center considered the residency of criminal defendants due to the perception that “any racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system — particularly for drug offenses — are due to crimes committed by people from out-of-state.”
The Justice Center made several policy recommendations, including reclassifying lower-to-mid-level felony drug possession into misdemeanor offenses.
This approach has helped California and Oregon reduce racial disparities in their criminal justice systems, said Madeleine Dardeau, policy analyst at the New York-based nonprofit.
The House Judiciary Committee is already working on a bill to reclassify certain drug crimes: H.505, “an act relating to reclassification of penalties for unlawfully possessing, dispensing, and selling a regulated drug.”
The bill attempts to begin addressing the Justice Center’s recommendations and “start the very important conversation,” committee Chair Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, told VTDigger.
Grad said she plans to hold a hearing about what other states have done and are doing in this realm.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, has filed S.183, “an act relating to midpoint probation review.”
The goal of the legislation is to allow people to be taken off supervision sooner if they meet certain requirements, such as not committing any probation violations, Sears said in an interview.
In remarks before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Chief Justice Paul Reiber of the Vermont Supreme Court said reassessing the state’s probation, parole and furlough systems is an important aspect of the Justice Reinvestment project.
Given the Justice Center’s findings, Reiber said the Supreme Court is planning to create a commission on racial justice for the state judiciary. He said the group, which could take about a year and a half to be formed, would examine issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. It would report on problems it identifies so that the court can take action.
The Vermont judiciary, Reiber said, has already put in place training on bias and implicit bias for judges and court staff. He said the court system has recognized this as an issue for years and knows more can be done.
“That’s not to say that we have ever made a full evaluation of the potential for there being issues of implicit discrimination or even overt discrimination in the way in which we are operating all of the various aspects of the justice system,” he told lawmakers.
Clarification: This article has been updated to make clear that the national results are in line with what happens with Vermont residents.
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