The first meeting of Vermont’s Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel was Tuesday in Montpelier. The Legislature has tasked its members with providing recommendations to address systemic racial disparities across the state.
Act 54 created the panel to review and make recommendations regarding bias in all areas of state government, with a particular focus on the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Training and education of officials, traffic stop data, and public education must be included in their review.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan says the panel must undertake a difficult and honest conversation about discrimination in Vermont. “Everybody should be treated equally under the law. And racism exists. We have to address it. We have to come together to address it. And we have to ask some tough questions here in Vermont. If you look at our DOC (Department of Corrections) population one would say those that are incarcerated in our state prisons should reflect our general population. But that’s not the case when we’re talking about the percentage of people of color particularly African-Americans who are incarcerated in this state. So we have some tough questions. I think this is probably the most important time because of Charlottesville to talk about the issues of race, to talk about the issues of civil rights, to talk about the issues of equal protection under the law and to stand up against hate.”
Burlington Community Justice Center Offender Workforce Development Specialist Christine Longmore was elected chair of the committee. While the initial meeting focused on data collection by police agencies, she says the panel must review many aspects of the criminal justice system. “Each one because of the way that they do their work has different ways of collecting information and analyzing the work that they do. And I think that as much as we can create sort of uniform systems that that’s going to be really important. We have so much work to do. We can’t just point the finger at the police. The justice system is way bigger. They’re the front end of the justice system and we need to be able to look at all of the aspects of the justice system.”
Vermont Chief Judge Brian Grearson says the panel’s work reflects the national dialogue. “More than anything else it’s a recognition that what’s happening nationwide, Vermont is part of that. I’ve always said that what Vermont experiences is similar to what happens outside of Vermont. But you know it’s all proportional, in proportion to the size of our state, our population. So it’s a matter of degree. But we’ve got the same problems, the same issues and we still need to focus in on them.”
Rights and Democracy advocate Mari Cordes says she has witnessed racial discrimination in the health care system and says all institutions, whether they are public or private, need to take a hard look at the issue. “Many of us are taking a hard look at our bias. Many people are still not. So I think what’s transferable is for institutions to have the courage to admit that it exists within them personally individually and within the organization and then take strong steps to establish processes and systems that will address it.”
The panel must provide a report to the Legislature on or before January 15th.