Reducing the number of people who are imprisoned in Vermont will not on its own significantly reduce racial disparities in the prison system.
While some data is available on racial disparities at different steps within the criminal legal system, the Legislature should pass the language to mandate data reporting on racial disparities systemwide in a place and format that is easily accessible, complete, and easy to read. Having data available from the DOC, courts, prosecutors, and police in an accessible format will help better identify and remedy the causes of racial disparity that plague Vermont’s criminal justice system.
People of color (especially Black and Latinx people) are at a higher risk of becoming involved in the justice system, including living under heightened police surveillance and being at higher risk for arrest. In Vermont, Black and Latinx drivers are up to 3.9 times more likely to be pulled over while driving than white people. Black and Latinx people are also more likely to be searched as the result of a traffic stop, but only half
as likely to be caught with illegal contraband as their white counterparts.
In 2017, the rate at which Black adults entered correctional facilities in Vermont was more than seven times higher than the rate for white adults. This imbalance cannot be accounted for by disparate involvement in illegal activity, and it grows at each stage in the justice system, beginning with initial law enforcement contact and increasing at subsequent stages, such as pretrial detention, conviction, sentencing, and post-release opportunity.
Focusing on only one of the factors that drives racial disparity does not address issues across the whole system.
Racial disparity is so ingrained in the system that it cannot be mitigated solely by reducing the scale of mass incarceration. Shrinking the prison population across the board will likely result in lower imprisonment rates for all racial and ethnic populations, but it will not address comparative disproportionality across populations. For example, focusing on reductions to prison admissions and length of stay in prison is critically important, but those reforms do not address the policies and practices among police, prosecutors,and judges that contribute greatly to the racial disparities that plague the prison system.
Ending mass incarceration is critical to eliminating racial disparities, but insufficient without companion efforts that take aim at other drivers of racial inequities outside of the criminal justice system. Reductions in disparate imprisonment rates require implementing explicit racial justice strategies.