Black Vermonters bear disproportionate brunt of drug charges, new report shows

Published: 11/18/2021 10:04:08 PM
Modified: 11/18/2021 10:04:03 PM

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.

Black people were 14 times more likely to be defendants in felony drug cases than white people, according to the council’s Justice Center report, prepared for the state Justice Reinvestment Working Group.

Black defendants are more likely to be incarcerated for drugs as well — even though national data suggests they use and sell drugs at the same rate as white people.

The working group discussed the findings at a virtual meeting Wednesday. The group, created out of the 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, SB 338, that was intended to reduce parole disparities, and Gov. Phil Scott signed it into law in July 2020.

“The data has challenged our assumptions and highlighted issues we didn’t know were there, didn’t understand or didn’t want to admit were there,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a member of the working group.

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.

Black people in Vermont are over six times more likely to be incarcerated than white people for all crimes, higher than the national average, according to the report.

They were 3.5 times more likely to be defendants for misdemeanor cases and 5.9 times more likely to be defendants in felony cases. But felony drug charges had the most dramatically pronounced disparity, with 14 times the likelihood of becoming defendants, said Sara Bastomski, senior research associate for the Council of State Governments.

After being convicted, the probability of being incarcerated for felony drug and property offenses is 18 percentage points higher for Black people, meaning they are less likely to receive non-prison options such as probation, split sentences or suspended sentences, the report found.

It’s 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.

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.

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.

‘Extremely alarming’

“(What) the data shows us is irrefutable,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a member of the working group. “It shows us what Black Vermonters have been saying for a really long time.”

Xusana Davis, racial equity director for Vermont, said the data’s limitations suggest the full scope of the problem could be even bigger than what’s in the report.

“These data are already extremely alarming, and it only reflects certain racial and ethnic groups, and the threshold of statistical significance,” she said. “There are still so many people whose stories only bolster this but who are not reflected for those various reasons.”

The working group plans to deliver a report on its investigation to the Legislature in January.

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