By Guy Page
Out-of-state, urban drug gang activity in Vermont may play a role in the racial disparity among Vermont inmates, but does not fully explain it, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the Dave Gram Show Tuesday.
Judiciary Committee chair for more than two decades, Sears is perhaps Vermont’s most influential legislator on matters of law and order. During a lengthy interview on the WDEV public affairs call-in show, Sears said the Legislature this year will review and act on recommendations by Justice Reinvestment II, an initiative to cut both crime and incarceration by investing in community crime prevention programs. JR2 must determine why, in a state population just one percent African-American, black people comprise eight percent of incarcerated Vermonters.
A report is due in December. Seeking answers to questions raised in our Oct. 18 report, Vermont Daily Chronicle emailed Gram this request: “Ask him if racial disparities among incarcerated is due in part to big city organized drug gangs in Vermont?”
Gram complied and Sears answered, “I honestly don’t know. That’s part of what we’re trying to find out through Justice Reinvestment, why there are disparities. There may be some of that, but I don’t think it explains the entire problem, of the racial disparity.”
“I think it’s difficult to ascribe it to an opiate problem, when there are I’m sure some people who are incarcerated rom Vermont who came from Albany, New York, Troy, New York, who are persons of color, but that does not explain the entire racial disparity within our criminal justice system,” Sears continued. “I think that is an easy way to get around it. I was at Woodside [Juvenile Detention Facility] last spring – why were there two persons of color there from among 10 kids, and neither one of them to my knowledge was involved in drugs? That was about 20% of their population at the time.”
Gram noted that the Vermont ACLU traces disparity to schools, where a large percentage of expelled and suspended students are minorities. Sears said the state of Vermont can’t even determine how many students are truant — “we don’t even have numbers on that.” The bottom line, he said, is that Vermont needs more information to help its criminal justice and schools reach a point where “incarceration, suspension have nothing to do with being a minority.”
McAllister suspension vote – Sen. Sears was among the 19 senators who voted in 2016 to suspend from the Senate Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) after he was arrested in 2015 for soliciting prostitution. Last month, after a lengthy court process, McAllister was cleared of all charges. Gram asked Sears about McAllister’s suspension, “Was that fair?” Sears answered with a rueful chuckle, “I don’t know, I really don’t.” He added that at the time, he thought the Senate made the best decision based on the facts it had.
See more of Guy Page’s reports at the Vermont Daily Chronicle.