State Headliners: ACLU says decriminalization will reduce racial disparity in VT prisons

By Guy Page

The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont said Tuesday the Legislature could cut Vermont’s prison population in half if it will decriminalize the sex trade, drug possession, writing bad checks and trespassing. It also urged the elimination of cash bail and closing Vermont’s prison for women.

The ACLU roadmap said the Legislature also must include closer scrutiny of prosecutors, more mental health and substance abuse treatment (especially for women), and expanded access to diversion and restorative justice and more. All of these changes are crucial for “addressing racial disparities that are among the worst in the nation,” the ACLU press release announces in the opening paragraph.

Guy Page

The roadmap has drawn praise from at least one pundit, progressive John Walters of VPO, who nonetheless predicted that because 2020 is an election year it is “destined to get the bone-saw treatment in the legislative abbatoir.” Whatever other Vermonters might think about the proposed solutions, the ACLU correctly states the disparity: while “Black people made up just 1 percent of the state’s adult population in 2017, they accounted for 8 percent of admissions to correctional facilities.”

Why the huge disparity? The ACLU doesn’t know: “Vermont’s prisons have some of the highest racial disparities in the country, the sources of which are obscured by a lack of criminal justice system data.”

The ACLU is not alone in wondering why Vermont, after Maine the second whitest U.S. state, has so many black and brown faces in its prisons. Last month Headliners posed the question to legislators with corrections oversight and senior Department of Corrections officials. To a person they said they don’t know why. Headliners also asked a senior member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office — and heard the same answer. They all said they would like an answer. Not much has changed since 2015, when Mic magazine reported what state justice and advocacy leaders knew about Vermont incarceration racial disparity:

  • “I have no information as to why.” — Matt Valerio, Vermont Public Defender General
  • “We are concerned that there appears to be a racial disparity. But you’re also working with really small numbers here, so it’s hard to tell.” — Robin Weber, Vermont Crime Group.
  • “The devil is in the details. And we don’t have all the details.” — Curtiss Reed, VT Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.

The ACLU said the State of Vermont was the only state to not send data to an Urban Institute national study, which might possibly have shed light on why so many African-Americans are sitting in Vermont jails.

The ACLU found the State of Vermont wanting in transparency:

The information in this report is limited by the fact that the Vermont Department of Corrections publishes little publicly available data and was not responsive to researchers’ requests for key metrics included across Blueprint for Smart Justice reports — including data that was generally available in other states.

In the absence of scholarly consensus, many theories abound. Professor Rashad Shabazz of Arizona State University told Mic, “Vermont reflects the same criminal justice trends as elsewhere. People of color still find themselves under the heavy scrutiny of the police.” This statement reflects a popular view that Vermont’s small minority population have been targeted (consciously or not) for extra, unwanted attention by police.

Others point to the generally accepted fact that crime is high among people with low incomes and poor education. There’s only one problem with that hypothesis: black Vermonters are actually better educated than their white counterparts, Vermont Biz reported in 2016. And the white-black income gap is much more narrow than the national average. Neither education nor income seem to explain the 8-1 disparity.

If not income and education, then what else? Author/farmer/lawyer John Klar of Brookfield, a one-time criminal defense attorney, suggests in the July 11 True North Reports that minority incarceration may stem from out-of-state gangs engaged in Vermont drug crime:

The actual cause of disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates in Vermont is likely the swelling drug trade, in which cartels move cheap Mexican White heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine throughout New England. There is less competition (and prices are higher) in Vermont’s high-demand towns than in the cities where the dealers travel from — Springfield and Boston in Massachusetts; Hartford and Willimantic, Connecticut (the heroin capital of the East Coast); New York City; Newark, N.J.  Inner-city gang violence and murder rates are not a product of race — they are a product of culture.

To test Klar’s theory, Headliners took a thumbnail survey of Vermont media reports of drug trafficking. The survey was admittedly superficial, the results anecdotal. From such limited data it would be foolish to infer that the inmate disparity is due to Brooklyn drug dealers getting busted in Burlington. But the data do, perhaps, suggest a correlation worth further examination. Here are the results:

  • WCAX September 12 – present, news reports about heroin or hard drug trafficking arrests/convictions: four non-minorities, four of race unknown, two minorities.
  • U.S. Attorney Office news releases about drug trafficking arrests/convictions: seven non-minorities, five unknown, eight minorities.
  • 2014 WPTZ news report showing mug shots of 98 people arrested for heroin dealing in Northern NY, Vermont, and the Upper Valley of New Hampshire: 31 minorities, 67 non-minorities.

Total tally: 78 non-minorities, nine of unknown ethnicity, and 41 minorities. Also, many minority drug crime perpetrators were current or former residents of out-of-state urban areas such as Springfield, Mass., Boston, New York City, or Hartford, Conn.

Every piece of data in this unscientific, superficial survey could be questioned seven ways from Sunday. For example, even though it’s a fact that out-of-state urban gangs deliver much of the Vermont heroin trade, it doesn’t follow that getting busted for trafficking while being of color and from out-of-state establishes a gang connection. And the federal U.S. Attorney’s office activity reflects its special interest in organized, interstate criminal activity.

Still, before the Vermont Legislature decriminalizes the sex trade, drug possession, trespassing and writing bad checks, all in the name of addressing racial disparity, it might want to first establish precisely why that disparity exists. Asking the Vermont Department of Corrections to evaluate its black inmates’ records and backgrounds might be a good place to start.

Most Vermonters fully support the sentiment expressed by ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling: “Everyone deserves fair treatment, no matter who they are or where they live.” Less certain is his conclusion that “our current system does not provide that.” Vermonters need a better explanation of the 8:1 disparity. Only then can the Legislature confidently move forward with solutions.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR