MONTPELIER — The state of Vermont has a history of being socially and politically progressive. Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery in 1777. Montpelier is the only state capital without a McDonald’s restaurant. Vermont was the only state without a Wal-mart until 1996.
More recently, Vermont has continued to lead the way in progressive reforms both politically and socially. It was one of the first states to legalize civil unions, push for a single-payer health care system and legalize cannabis. However, Vermont’s criminal justice system does not follow the same progressive trend.
Vermont has one of the worst track records when it comes to the criminal justice system. According to Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (VCJR) white people are equally as likely to be involved with drugs as black people are, yet, “on average, black and brown people are incarcerated in Vermont state prisons at a rate 5.1 times higher the imprisonment of whites. Vermont has a higher rate of incarceration of black and brown men than any other state. 1 in 14 black and brown men in the state of Vermont are incarcerated.”
“Drug laws exist to police people of color,” said Joanna Colwell, a community activist. “That is a national issue, though, not just a Vermont issue. It’s a double whammy: the law itself is racist and then you have those racist laws implemented in a way that is even more unfair to people of color.”
According to the 2010 census, while only 1.1 percent of Vermont’s population is black, blacks make up 10.7 percent of the Vermont prison population.
A recent study published by the University of Vermont found that black and hispanic drivers are more likely than white or Asian drivers to receive a citation once pulled over. The black arrest rate is almost double the white arrest rate. When a demographic of people are stopped and arrested more often, a higher percentage of them will end up behind bars.
“Racism is a systemic issue, not just a matter of a couple bad police officers,” said Nico Armador, an organizer for the ACLU. “Multiple disparities that are impacting people of color create a higher likelihood that they will end up in prison at some point in their life. Disparities include economic disparity, high rates of unemployment, discrimination and ways in which people of color experience the school system.”
While it has become evident that Vermont’s criminal justice system is racist, there is an overwhelming consensus that the current administration is dedicated to reforming many aspects of the criminal justice system here in Vermont.
“The good things that have happened are the results of policies that the legislature and the administration have put in place over the past decade,” said Robin Scheu, a representative for Addison County who sits on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. “Ten years ago, the prison population was projected to be 2800 people in 2018. Today, the population is down to 1700 prisoners.”
This downward trend in inmate population comes in conjunction with policies that have been passed by recent administrations. The current governor and state legislature have made a conscious decision to transition towards a restorative justice criminal justice system.
Vermont is the only state to have community justice centers in every county in the state. The state has also passed legislation that focuses on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment: People can no longer be kept in prison for misdemeanors, and programs have been created that use youth age court diversions to keep people from entering the criminal justice system.
Youth age court diversion programs are used with first-time offenders for minor crimes, and encourages their sentencing to be kept at a minimum. Vermont’s restorative justice system also gives offenders the chance to perform certain restitutions to avoid punishment, and pretrial services exist that allow people to receive services they need before they ever actually enter a prison system.
In light of the study published by University of Vermont, which emphasizes discrimination in the criminal justice system, the state legislature passed a bill to create The Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel. The bill states that “the Panel shall review and provide recommendations to address systemic racial disparities in statewide systems of criminal and juvenile justice.”
The panel will be comprised of 13 members, five of whom will be appointed by the attorney general from “diverse backgrounds to represent the interests of communities of color throughout the State.”
In spite of these reforms, Vermont’s criminal justice system has a long way to go. All of the state-owned prisons in Vermont were built before the time of restorative justice. The prisons are designed to emphasize punishment as opposed to rehabilitation.
Colwell explained that the state of Vermont is currently paying Pennsylvania to house 262 Vermonters in a state prison, which not only makes it extremely difficult for relatives to visit inmates who are incarcerated but also inhibits prisoners’ access to rehabilitation programs.
The Vermont ACLU is pushing for cash bail reform and a reform to the role that prosecutors play in rates of incarceration. In order to alleviate the pressure from psychiatric hospitals and emergency rooms, the state would need to expand the number of beds in correctional facilities.
Although the creation of a panel to review the racial disparities in the criminal justice system is a good start, more reforms have been demanded to combat the systemic racism evident in Vermont’s justice system.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series.