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New Report: Black People in Vermont See a Disproportionate Rate of Drug Charges

Man in handcuffs
Heady Vermont Staff 19 Nov 2021

MONTPELIER — Black people in Vermont are far more likely than white people to be charged and imprisoned on felony drug charges, according to a new data analysis for the Council of State Governments.

Among other findings, the report says that Black people in Vermont were 14 times more likely to be defendants in felony drug cases than their white counterparts. The data analysis for the Council of State Governments Justice Center report was first reported by VT Digger this week. 

The working group discussed the findings at a virtual meeting this week. The group, created out of Vermont’s Justice Reinvestment Act, is a coalition of legislators, advocates, nonprofit leaders and corrections officials. 

In 2019, the group tapped the Council of State Governments for a report on parole and furlough. The report led to a bill, S.338, that was intended to reduce parole disparities. Gov. Phil Scott signed it into law as Act 148 in July 2020. 

Findings of the Report

The report found that Black people in Vermont are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people for all crimes, which is higher than the national average. 

Black defendants in the state are also more likely to be jailed for drugs, despite national data showing that Black people and white people use and sell drugs at similar rates.

Post-conviction, Black people in the state are 18% more likely to be incarcerated for felony drug and property offenses.

Black people were also 3.5 times more likely to be defendants for misdemeanor cases and 5.9 times more likely to be defendants in felony cases, the report says. 

Post-conviction, Black people in the state are 18% more likely to be incarcerated for felony drug and property offenses; meaning they are less likely to receive non-prison options such as probation or split or suspended sentences, the report found.

Vermont is not alone in reporting racial disparities across its criminal justice system.

“National research indicates that, while racial disparities in incarceration have declined since 2000, they remain a persistent and pervasive feature of the U.S. criminal justice system,” the report said.

Those disparities are even more apparent in drug charges, where national research has found that Black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive longer sentences than white people — even when comparing across the same severity of crime.

Vermonters, not out-of-staters

In discussions before the data analysis, stakeholders told the researchers that charges being filed against out-of-staters were the reason for any apparent racial disparities.

The Council of State Governments analysis … found those disparities remain even when accounting for factors such as whether someone is a Vermont resident.

But the data does not back up that assumption. The Council of State Governments analysis, taken from 79,570 cases from 2014 to 2019, found those disparities remain even when accounting for factors such as whether someone is a Vermont resident. (The researchers did not analyze other racial groups, saying the sample size was too small.)

Cocaine was the top drug that sent Black Vermonters to prison, while heroin was more common for white convictions, the data shows. Some national advocates have said there are racial double standards in drug laws that give white heroin users more leeway in avoiding prison than Black crack cocaine users.

Report Recommendations 

The report included recommendations for how policymakers could reduce the disparity. First among them: apply a “racial equity lens” to the reclassification of drug offenses, the report said.

Vermont is already considering a new classification system for drug offenses. The researchers suggested taking racial disparities into account, moving certain drug crimes from felony to misdemeanor and changing drug amount thresholds.

The Council of State Governments also recommended creating nonbinding sentencing guidance or probation guidance for certain drug and property offenses, citing evidence that sentencing guidance for other crimes in Vermont has led to fewer disparities.

Other recommendations included investigating disparities in pretrial and diversion programs, increasing consistency in state’s attorneys’ offices and improving data collection within the criminal justice system.

The group plans to deliver a report to the Legislature on the findings in January.

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