Statehouse Headliners: House bill could provide info on inmate racial disparity, out-of-state drug traffickers

By Guy Page

The Judiciary Committee of the Vermont House of Representatives next year is expected to take up a criminal justice data collection bill, a senior legislator told a systemic racism activist at a public hearing Friday.

This data could help explain why, in a state that is one percent African-American, 8 percent of inmates are black.

The Vermont Legislature needs better data about what causes racial disparity in Vermont, and the state of Vermont must do a better job of delivering it, activist Mark Hughes of Burlington told the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee today at the Vermont Statehouse.

Guy Page

After discussing what he called Vermont’s “systemic racism” problem, including the “disproportionate number of people of color in our prisons,” Hughes — a retired U.S. Army officer, VFW member, and Burlington Police Commissioner — repeated a claim made by the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union earlier this month: that the state of Vermont has done a poor job crunching available criminal justice data and publicizing the results. The data exists, Hughes said: “what are we doing with it?”

Committee Chair Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, responded that he expects the House to take up H.284, “an act relating to data collection in the criminal justice system.” As proposed, the bill would require publishing court records identifying “the presiding judge, the charge or charges, and the individual’s age, race, gender, and state of last residence.”

Better info about alleged drug traffickers could help determine the extent to which drug dealers from out-of-state comprise the African-American inmate population. As noted in the Oct. 11 Headliners, a survey of media reports of Vermont drug trafficking arrests and convictions show a significant percentage of minorities, many with out-of-state addresses. But surveys and anecdotal information are one thing, and hard data is another. Knowing if Vermont’s African-American inmate population is significantly due to out-of-state drug gang activity could inform both anti-drug trafficking policing and systemic racism initiatives.

Hughes stresses that he’s taking a broader view than ‘just’ criminal justice. Good data and policies will help the State of Vermont deliver “justice for all, no matter what you look like – justice in housing, justice in education, justice in employment, and yes, justice in criminal justice system,” he said.

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