Montpelier, Vt. – The Council of State Governments yesterday presented its analysis of Vermont prosecutions and court outcomes, reporting pronounced racial disparities in charging and sentencing decisions. Among the findings, CSG reported that Black people in Vermont are disproportionately overrepresented in misdemeanor and felony cases, and over 14 times more likely than white people to be defendants in a felony drug case. Black defendants are also far more likely to be incarcerated for certain felony offenses – including drug offenses – than white defendants, who are more often given alternatives to incarceration.

These findings mirror national trends indicating that despite similar rates of drug use and sales for Black and white people, Black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. The data also refutes a common, false claim that racial disparities in Vermont prisons are attributable to “out-of-state drug dealers.”

The following statement can be attributed to ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling: “For anyone committed to advancing racial justice in their communities, these findings are critically important and should be acted on immediately. They show that extreme racial disparities in Vermont state prosecutions and sentencing decisions are real, and can’t be attributed to racist tropes about ‘out-of-state drug dealers’ when they are, in fact, the result of systemic racism in state prosecutors’ offices and courthouses. These findings also help to explain why, year after year, Vermont’s prisons have some of the worst racial disparities in the country.

 This report demonstrates the urgent need for transparency in our legal system – in particular, strong data collection and analysis, without which these practices can be concealed, and these injustices allowed to continue. This is why Vermont needs to mandate data transparency in our legal system without further delay, and legislators can do that by passing H.317 this year.  

This data also confirms the failed ‘war on drugs’ is as racist in Vermont as anywhere else – and that we need to replace punitive drug policies with effective, public health-centered approaches. Legislators can do that by reclassifying drug offenses and decriminalizing personal use amounts; legalizing safe consumption sites; raising the felony threshold for property crimes; and establishing guidelines and oversight for state prosecutors, among other reforms.

These findings add to the already extensive and inescapable evidence showing that systemic racism in Vermont extends to all facets of our society, from housing and healthcare to schools and employment, as well as policing, prosecutions, and prisons. We have the ability to address and remedy these injustices, and it is well past time that we do so.”

CSG’s report is one of several to highlight the impacts of systemic racism in Vermont’s legal system in recent years. Statewide police data consistently shows Black motorists being stopped, searched, and cited at higher rates even though they are less likely to be found with contraband than white people, and racial disparities in Vermont’s prisons are among the highest in the country – CSG reports Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated in Vermont than white people.

CSG recommends that Vermont legislators improve data collection and analysis system-wide, including the court system; establish minimum guidelines for charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions in state’s attorneys’ offices; institute presumptive probation for certain offenses; reclassify drug offenses using a race equity lens; and identify and address any racial disparities in diversion and pretrial services.

CSG’s report and recommendations are available here.