By John Klar
Eight men have recently been charged with very serious drug and firearm charges in Vermont: all from the Hartford, Connecticut area. These cases highlight the dangerous trade in drugs for guns. They also demonstrate that Vermont is not incarcerating people of color because of systemic racism, but in response to a very deadly opioid epidemic.
Opioid fatalities in Vermont increased 33% over the last twelve months, from 82 as of September 2019 to 109 at September 2020. Alarming also is the increase in emergent care for opioid overdose as of Nov. 10 compared to the average rate over the last three years, suggesting the spike in overdoses is not an aberration. Whether or not COVID is increasing addiction or overdose fatalities, the drugs are flowing, and fentanyl is involved in most deaths.
There were 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2018, more than 760,000 since 1999. The four waves of the crisis have been prescription medications, heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine. To literally compound the problem, disturbing trends reveal that polysubstance use (combining drugs) is increasing, which exponentially complicates treatment, especially due to the lack of comparable treatment tools for stimulants. Methamphetamine-associated deaths increased 20-30% in 2018.
There has been much criticism of Vermont’s judicial system in recent years because of the increased number of minority inmates in Vermont prisons. Yet this escalation coincided with these waves of heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficking: the dozens of crimes reported by out-of-state perpetrators suggest the spike in incarcerations has resulted directly from increased apprehension of guilty offenders who travel to Vermont to sell drugs, not because Vermont’s entire criminal justice system targets people of color. That contention is more than insulting — it benefits illicit crime, undermines honest police, and puts Vermont residents of all colors at greater risk of addiction and overdose.
Witness the eight just arrested. The five Newport suspects were allegedly involved with drugs and guns (one was shot!). The three in Rutland were charged with an “assortment of heroin, fentanyl, and crack cocaine offenses,” and possessed firearms and cash. All three have criminal histories: Rashane Wedderburn for two counts of risk of injury to a child and other charges; Cedano Brownswell for 3.1 ounces of crack cocaine and a handgun (shots fired ); Ralph Mariani, who was also shot in the stomach in an apparent assassination attempt at a Hartford hotel in 2017.
Vermont is declaimed as having “the highest rate of incarceration of blacks in the country” (1 in 14), even though it has one of the lowest overall incarceration rates. These studies do not account for out-of-state origin of inmates. Thus, the numerator in these statistics is artificially inflated for the hordes of Hartford denizens who commute to the Green Mountains to sell drugs and buy guns.
Consider Torey Smith; Chyquan Cupe; Pedro Ocasio; Luis Lupa and Edwin Martinez. In one Rutland case, 6 of 16 named defendants in a drug round-up were from out-of-state. Most of these were “people of color.” The arrests discussed in this essay alone would collectively skyrocket Vermont’s statistical rate of incarceration of blacks relative to its population. This has zero to do with deliberate racism from our law enforcement. To strain incarceration data to reach that conclusion is itself a criminal travesty — a travesty very warmly embraced by Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, who has condemned his own police rather than investigate where these convicted felons originated.
The Vermont ACLU rails: “Vermont has some of the worst prison racial disparities in the country … This imbalance starts from initial law enforcement contact and continues through subsequent stages, such as pretrial detention, conviction, sentencing, and post-release opportunity. … Vermont needs to invest in identifying the sources of racial disparities if we are going to fulfill our commitment to ending them.”
What is happening is that drug dealers find Vermont alluring, not that Vermont authorities are victimizing blacks.
Ben & Jerry are experts on both ice cream and black incarceration, and are proponents of our new “post-racial era.” They offer awareness at their website like: “Vermont is very white. And yet, somehow Vermont has the highest incarceration rate for Black men in the entire country. … The rate of incarceration for Black men and women is awful, but it’s slightly better than it was a few years ago.”
If “guilt of crime” were a factor, perhaps Ben and Jerry would recognize that they are employing ice cream profits to underwrite fentanyl traffickers. White kids aren’t transporting heroin from Connecticut suburbs: mostly black kids are, from the inner city.
Some would institute statistical quotas for black inmates — the numbers must match underlying Vermont population demographics regardless of guilt, even if those charged with crimes arrived from different states with dramatically different demographics. That would be quite a justice system, wouldn’t it? And yes, folks, that’s precisely what is being implemented in Vermont’s “post-racial era.”
Mark Hughes of Justice For All VT attributes the black incarceration rates to Vermont’s “culture of denial” — is he in denial of the Hartford pipeline? Would Harriet Tubman have been heroic for smuggling killer drugs north, and interdiction deemed oppressive?
Interstate commerce in narcotics is the true culprit behind Vermont’s racially-imbalanced incarceration rates. Back in 2016, as reported in VTDigger, a study submitted to the Legislature by the Vermont Crime Research Group found “when a defendant had an out-of-state record, regardless of race, it was a driving factor in the decision to incarcerate … [and] anecdotal evidence suggested that out-of-state defendants were strongly influencing sentences. The study, which reviewed the cases of 852 defendants, found that minority defendants were nearly two times more likely to have out-of-state criminal histories than white defendants.”
In 2018, VPR noted: “What The Sentencing Project report doesn’t tell us is where these African-American inmates are from. How many are Vermont residents, versus those arrested while visiting or passing through? That’s the subject of ongoing research — and we’ll get back to it later on.”
It’s time to “get back to it.”
If Vermont wants to get serious about opioid deaths — and racism — it must be honest about where these drugs are coming from, instead of perverting data to tie the hands of law enforcement and malign an entire culture and its legal system. Currently, Vermont’s stupefying ignorance is like a beacon to the Hartford gangsters: they will keep on coming — laughing all the way — until Vermonters are “woke.”
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and the former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.