Among its findings: Between 2014 and 2019, Black Vermonters were more than 14 times more likely to be defendants in felony drug cases. Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the ACLU of Vermont, said the report demonstrates an urgent need for transparency.
“For anyone committed to advancing racial justice in their communities, these findings are critically important and should be acted on immediately," Schilling said. "They show that extreme racial disparities in Vermont state prosecutions and sentencing decisions are real, and can’t be attributed to racist tropes about ‘out-of-state drug dealers’ when they are, in fact, the result of systemic racism in state prosecutors’ offices and courthouses."
The analysis from the Council of State Governments offers one of the clearest pictures of racial disparities in Vermont over the past decade. Schilling said the report also highlights the need to change drug laws in Vermont across the board.
"Everyone should have the same access to fair justice no matter what they look like or what county they happen to live in. We know that more needs to be done to make sure that our court systems are fair or equitable," Schilling said. "We can start by looking at our drug laws and changing them, as well as other laws including laws related to property crimes, and the legislature has an opportunity to do that this coming session."
Come January, the Vermont Legislature will consider a bill, H.317, that would mandate data transparency in Vermont's legal system.
"It's not easy, and it's going to take some work and it's going to take some investment, but the good news is there's broad buy-in across the spectrum from both sides of the aisle, saying 'This is what we need to make our justice system better and more efficient', so we have high hopes they'll take this and move it forward," Schilling said.
The report includes a long list of recommendations, such as greater consistency in charging and plea-bargaining decisions in state's attorneys' offices; addressing disparities in diversion and pretrial services; and reclassifying low-to-mid level felony drug possessions as misdemeanors.
"The one place where we differ is making possession of all drugs a misdemeanor," Schilling said. "We believe all drugs should be decriminalized, and so we're happy to have that conversation with lawmakers come January."
The report was delivered to the Vermont Justice Reinvestment II Working Group, which was established in July 2019 by Gov. Phil Scott. In July 2020, the group's purview was expanded to oversee policy changes and review barriers that to reducing Vermont's prison population.