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New data shows big racial disparities in Vermont drug convictions

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 5:28 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - New data shows big racial disparities when it comes to drug convictions in Vermont.

The report from a special state task force could be used to guide legislative reforms.

Decision-makers say the data confirms what they already knew. And they say it gives them a better grasp of how to move forward in curbing racial disparities across Vermont’s criminal justice system.

“When we saw these numbers, they were shocking but weren’t surprising,” said Falko Schilling of the ACLU of Vermont.

The data collected by the Council of State Governments shows Black Vermonters are 14 times more likely to be charged with felony drug crimes than white Vermonters.

It also shows Black Vermonters are six times more likely to be incarcerated relative to white people overall.

Lawmakers say the report debunks claims of most incarcerated people of color being from outside of Vermont.

“It doesn’t just allow us to identify problems, it also means we also have to develop targeted data-driven policy decisions,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

The Legislature has been working with advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement and corrections officials to do just that.

“We’ve known for a long time that the state of Vermont disproportionally incarcerates people of color, in particular, Black people. But what this did, it gave us more information on where those disparities came from, and a bit of a road map in how to address them,” Schilling said.

The report offers recommendations:

  • Reclassifying some drug offenses to lower levels not likely to result in jail time.
  • Sentencing low-level drug and property crime offenders to probation instead of prison.
  • Creating more consistent charging and plea bargaining decisions across Vermont’s 14 state’s attorneys’ offices.

Prosecutors say that could create conflicting policies among individually elected officers. And that judges also have a big say in bail and sentencing.

“Every time you move toward statewide consistency, you’re going to potentially compromise statewide innovations and flexibility and vice versa,” said Evan Meenan, a deputy state’s attorney at the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

The report also calls for more data collection across state and local agencies.

The Council of State Governments does not capture all ethnic and racial groups, such as Hispanic Vermonters.

The Legislature is in the process of creating a new bureau of racial justice statistics.

“It’s not only collecting data but really understanding and using that data. Part of the discussion will be what will this bureau look at and where will it be,” said Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown.

But lawmakers say criminal justice reform is just one piece of the puzzle. They say it requires a broader effort to bolster opportunity for all Vermonters.

“We need to do more in terms of providing good jobs and making sure good jobs are available, but also making sure we’re doing a good job educating our population,” Sears said.

Vermont’s director of racial equity tells me data collection is an issue. She says the data we do have points to the same message-- that while controlling for all other factors, race remains predictive of one’s outcomes in the justice system.

Click here to read the full report.

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