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Vt. report addresses racism complaints

Published: 12/10/2019 10:05:10 PM
Modified: 12/10/2019 10:05:04 PM

MONTPELIER — A new report lays out steps Vermont lawmakers could take to try to address systemic racism in state government.

The report suggests lawmakers establish a system to take and review instances of racial bias. It also recommends the state improve collection of racial disparity data in police traffic stops and across the criminal justice system.

Etan Nasreddin-Longo, an author of the report, told the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee Tuesday that the recommendations aim to deconstruct a system that is biased against people of color.

“Everybody goes, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not wearing a white hood, and I’m not lynching a black person. … I don’t have a cross burning on my front lawn,’ ” Nasreddin-Longo said. “That’s really spectacular. But that’s not it.”

The report, which was produced the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel created by the Legislature in 2017, recommends creating a reporting system that would gather complaints of racial bias experienced by anyone who interacts with Vermont’s state agencies.

The panel recommended housing the new bias complaint system under the Human Rights Commission. To be effective, the report notes, the commission would need more resources to support the work, but the panel did not offer any specific costs.

The panel also urged lawmakers to expand the collection of data to track racial disparities in the criminal justice systems and other parts of state government. The report recommends collecting race data from county prosecutors, the Attorney General’s Office, public defenders, the judiciary and the Department for Children and Families.

Currently, the state requires law enforcement agencies to collect race data from traffic stops, but the information is not standardized. The report recommends lawmakers increase oversight of the traffic stop data.

Racial justice advocacy groups recently compiled a database of traffic stop data, which showed that people of color are more often stopped by police than white people are. But it was incomplete — some data was unavailable or inaccurate from some departments. In some cases, officers would assume the race of the person they stopped based on their appearance.

The report comes amid a number of other efforts to address racial disparities in Vermont. This summer, Vermont created a new executive director of racial equity position, which aims to promote inclusion and diversity in state government. In January, Attorney General TJ Donovan announced the creation of a “Bias Incident Reporting System.” Now, these incidents are forwarded to the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, which determines whether the complaints should be passed to the Human Rights Commission, the civil rights division of the Attorney General’s Office, or the U.S. attorney, according to VPR.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday he is concerned about the disproportionate numbers of people of color in Vermont’s jails. A 2018 report found that African Americans made up 8.5% of Vermont’s prison populations despite comprising a little more than 1% of the state’s population.

He said he supports more standardized and accountable data collection and sees it as a mechanism that can help lawmakers better understand how bias exists in the state’s agencies. Sears said he plans to make both of these recommendations a priority this upcoming legislative session.

“I want to make sure that we learn from our mistakes,” Sears said.

Nasreddin-Longo said the report is starting a conversation that he hopes can help Vermonters become more comfortable with conversations about racism. He said it’s important for white people to confront how they might be complicit in racist systems that advantage white people over people of color.

“We have to get comfortable being called racist… We have to be comfortable being wrong,” Nasreddin-Longo said. “But we also have to be open and willing to change it.”

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