By John Klar
The primary thrust of my article criticizing Gov. Phil Scott and Attorney General T.J. Donovan was that it is unprofessional to label a population racist solely based on arrest and incarceration rates in the midst of a fentanyl/heroin epidemic. If in fact the governor and attorney general have made an error, the stakes are enormous, and that failure is gargantuan. But common sense (and the admittedly tiny number of blacks in jail, which can swing the date enormously) should lead us to at least fully examine the date before leaping to such weighty conclusions.
As a special public defender in Connecticut, I represented dozens of defendants charged with narcotics trafficking, mostly black or latino. My clients were often members of national gangs, such as 20 Love, Los Solidos, and others; some of my clients from Puerto Rico dealt drugs until arrested, and then would flee back to Puerto Rico on the eve of sentencing, where they will never be deported. There are always others to fill their spot. As law enforcement knew in the 1990s, “Suburban drug trafficking by gangs is nothing new.” Huge quantities of narcotics are smuggled into Bradley International Airport — it is gangs that are the distribution system.
I would routinely meet my clients in courthouse bathrooms or lock-ups, or even a closet (resources have improved). I have many times entered maximum security facilities, overcrowded to triple or quadruple their intended capacity — and they are completely ruled by gangs. It is a different world. Dorms are segregated by gang membership so they don’t have constant wars — if you are not in a gang, you are their beachball. I have seen very rugged men reduced to suicidal terror after just one day in Jennings Road prison in Hartford.
I grew up with one foot in Vermont and the other near Hartford, Connecticut. The truth is, I was able to represent these people (an incredibly dangerous business for defense attorneys) because I knew members of the Savage Nomads, Los Solidos and 20 Love, and other gangs, when I was on the streets of Hartford at age 15 or 16. I knew their colors, where I could get killed. We white kids liked to wear blue or red bandanas to rock concerts back then — if you get lost in the wrong neighborhood, the wrong bandana is instant execution or brutal beating. The gangs have not declined — they have increased, and Vermonters had best look south to reality. I’d stay the summer in Vermont, where the clueless rednecks had no idea how safe and sound and “privileged” they were. They still don’t. (Privilege not of race, but of culture — the relaxing freedom to live in a place where one is not constantly fearful of assault or robbery, as found in urban cultures.)
This is why I have no tolerance for T.J. Donovan’s failed leadership in calling Vermont’s entire “system” racist based solely on prison incarceration rates. I speak to our police, and to police in New Hampshire and Connecticut — they know what I say is true, because they are on the front lines. Is Donovan blind, or politically motivated? His VPR interview sure was nicely timed for his virtue-signaling run.
I have tried to raise awareness of the huge importance of this issue — to call police racist for arresting cartel and inner city drug dealers would place them in an incredibly untenable position. So I just would like VTDigger or another journalist, or the police, or the attorney general, defender general, or somebody, to simply analyze the data on place of origin and share that with us. I’m not “willing to be wrong” because I have not assessed the data — because what I am correct about is that it was recklessly hasty to blame the police and courts without first having done this. And it wasn’t done. Astonishing.
Here is what a Vermont government attorney (salary paid by Vermonters) stated in a VPR report about the issue: “’In light of the statistics and our continuing history of racism both in this country and in this state, a judge has to be especially alert in a drug case with very weak facts,’” Dawn Matthews said.
Her argument was basically Implicit Bias 101.
“It’s not just judges. It’s prosecutors, it’s defense attorneys, it’s courtroom staff, it’s jurors,” Matthews was quoted as saying. “It’s everybody that has this kind of shorthand that works in our brains where we have a tendency to associate people of color with crime without even realizing that we’re doing it.”
This is libelous in my book — is there evidence that people are being incarcerated in drug cases based on “very weak facts”? Because I would fully defend any person of any color under our Constitution. But this attorney has no such evidence. More likely, defendants are being let off or handed light sentences because of race, where the facts are very strong. But note that the “facts” supposedly relied upon are “the statistics and our continuing history of racism … in this state.” Speak for yourself, lady. Vermont voted Obama. Vermont is a wonderful place where “people of color” have long been welcomed, and has little, if any, history of racism — anecdotes do not justify stereotypes.
There was also this:
“You know, you have a low rate of incarceration overall, right, compared to Texas and other places. But you have a very high rate of incarceration for African-Americans,” said John Eason, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, and before that Texas A&M University. “So yeah, that would say, relative to other places, even Texas, that Vermont’s just more racist.”
To be fair, Eason has never been to Vermont, or studied it, but it’s striking that this was his expert opinion.
“That’s something that needs to be fixed in the culture there,” Eason says. “So what is it about Vermont? That’s the question I have.”
What is striking is that VPR hunts down anti-Vermont opinions from out-of-state “experts” using our tax dollars to smear us. Does “associate professor” Eason from Wisconsin and Texas have experience in drug cartel trafficking and its relation to incarceration rates for “people of color”? Was he asked whether drug trafficking might be connected? Perhaps the question he has — “what is it about Vermont?” — should be answered before reaching the conclusion “that’s something that needs to be fixed in the culture there.” It’s a cart-and-horse thing.
But what of T.J. Donovan himself? On his campaign run he emphasized repeatedly that he wished to reduce incarceration rates. On the ACLU’s website is the following candidate statement in response to a question:
Q. Police records show that people of color are disproportionately stopped and searched by Vermont law enforcement, and racial disparities in Vermont’s prison system are among the worst in the nation. What new policies will you advance to better address systemic racism in Vermont’s criminal justice system specifically, and in Vermont as a whole?
A. We need a paradigm shift in culture to solve the issue of racism and bias in our criminal justice system. Addressing issues of racism in Vermont is imperative; it is a matter of basic human equality. Last year, our office convened the Racial Disparities Panel. The work of this Panel will be important in our efforts to make our criminal justice system more equitable. The Panel examines implicit bias across all aspects of the criminal justice system. Having honest conversations about bias in our courts, prosecutor’s offices, police stations and schools is essential. But there is much more work that needs to be done to ensure that people are treated fairly in this system.We need achieve equal access to justice and ensure procedural justice to address the racial disparities that exist in our system. For example, reducing the use of cash bail for low-level misdemeanors, an initiative spearheaded by my office, will reduce the instances when bias can negatively affect a defendant who could formerly have been incarcerated before trial. Both the FIP and the Racial Disparities Panel are good initial steps towards addressing the issue of racism and bias in our systems. But these are issues that require a paradigm shift in our culture. The choices of decision makers in our criminal justice system- prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers- need to be examined to identify bias and end it.
Interestingly, the Left that excoriated Brett Kavanaugh for an alleged juvenile crime and called for his disqualification had no criticism for T.J. Donovan’s conviction for a drunken aggravated assault. It’s almost like there’s a double standard, and that double standard extends to “having honest conversations about bias in our courts, prosecutors’ offices, police stations and schools.” The left does not want an honest conversation; they seek to erase criminal records, eliminate cash bonds (assisting out-of-state offenders the greatest), reduce prison populations, and end systemic racism without first establishing it exists. It does not want innocent people of color detained on false suspicion of crime (an admirable shared goal), but seems to err on the side of protecting drug dealers who are people of color. Police officers are trained to be colorblind, which is what we are now told we are not to do — “We are creating a world where people don’t say ‘I don’t see color,’ but rather say ‘I embrace all of who you are.’” So our police are supposed to see color, but only for embracing “all of what someone is” while actively ignoring that as a “person of color” they may be, based on clear criminological statistics, much more likely to be in a criminal gang transporting heroin or fentanyl.
But this is as backward as the comments above from associate professor Eason. Vermont has always embraced constitutional law and rights — where is the evidence of systemic racism? The “paradigm shift in our culture” is that we do not have honest conversations at all, about many issues — like whether parents wish to have their children offered transgender surgery without their knowledge; whether killing a third-trimester “fetus” is infanticide; whether a $15 minimum wage will cause irreperable harm to our economy; whether a carbon tax is fair or even doable. All of these issues are being decided for us by a bully-pulpit gang of progressive thugs who include most of Vermont’s once-balanced media, both legislative houses, and our politically ambitious attorney general. And Phil Scott has coupled his policy and voice with the progressives on guns, abortion and now race. It’s not about race but about urban versus rural culture — yet TJ Donovan, the progressives and Phil Scott have manipulated the so-called “honest discussion” to make this about race. Drive-by shootings and the honor culture of gang warfare are related to poverty and ideology, not race. The historical causes of poverty and gang violence do not justify those criminal behaviors, nor make that cultural contrast between Vermont and Springfield, Mass., evaporate. It is simply a fact that Vermont is one of the most rural areas of the nation, a short drive from a bustling illicit urban marketplace whose capitalist rule is “caveat emptor.” And Vermonters had better start to become aware.
In “Mea Culpa III,” I will reveal another area where Vermonters had best become more wary: our allegedly trustworthy media. I ask yet again — why has none in this state’s media asked the simple critical question that every mechanic, dairy person, and shop owner asks or would ask: Is there a connection between higher rates of incarceration for blacks in Vermont and the illegal drug traffic coming up Routes 91 and 93?
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.