House Passes Bills To Address Racial Bias In The Criminal Justice System

Apr 13, 2017

House lawmakers have given final approval to legislation that would update the state’s fair and impartial policing policies, and create a new 15-person board to oversee racial justice issues in Vermont.

Data has shown repeatedly that African Americans living in Vermont are far more likely than white people to be pulled over by police, or to be imprisoned for alleged criminal activity. Many lawmakers say the statistics are the result of implicit bias in the criminal justice system. They say two bills this week are an attempt to address the issue.

The legislation stems in large part from the advocacy work of Mark Hughes, the founder of Justice For All, an organization that works on issues of racial justice in Vermont. When Hughes arrived at the Statehouse at the beginning of 2017 to push for new racial justice legislation, he admittedly did not have a keen understanding of how the building works.

What Hughes did have was data that spotlights stark racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.

“One in 14 African American males are incarcerated in this state. We lead the nation, okay?” Hughes says. “With a one percent population of African Americans in this state, 10 percent of the population prisons are African Americans. These are facts, okay?”

"One in 14 African American males are incarcerated in this state. We lead the nation." — Mark Hughes, founder of Justice For All

Lawmakers took an interest in Hughes’ proposal. And while it isn’t everything the Cabot resident was looking for, the House has passed bills that would update the state’s fair and impartial policing policies, and establish a new racial justice oversight board to monitor racial bias in the criminal justice system, and other sectors of government.

“What we’re talking about here is, how do we affect a system? How do we affect institutionalized racism and create an impact across the board?” Hughes says.

Racial justice advocate Mark Hughes, seen here at a March press conference, says a 15-member board will perform government oversight that the Legislature hasn't been able to do.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR File

Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris is one of the lead sponsors of the racial justice legislation. Morris says the 15-member racial justice oversight board will provide the framework needed to flag bias, and come up with ways to mitigate its impact on people color.

“This is really intended to be preventative, to look at what we have and find mechanisms for correcting course, so that we can make sure our state is just and fair for all,” Morris says.

The bill related fair and impartial policing policy would require law enforcement agencies to adopt more uniform fair and impartial policing protocols. Lawmakers passed a fair and impartial policing bill in 2014, and, as of April of this year, all police agencies in the state have adopted the required policy.

Morris, however, says the existing statute needs work.

“The rules for engagement between law enforcement and the public are inconsistent in application across the state,” Morris says. “This leaves major concerns that one individual may have a drastically difference experience with law enforcement depending on which community they’re in at the time.”

The bill would also update fair and impartial policing policies to ensure they don’t run afoul of federal law.

Support for the two bills was not unanimous. Newport Rep. Gary Viens sits on the House Judiciary Committee that oversaw work on the racial justice legislation. He’s also a retired career law-enforcement officer.

"It's a stigma. Passing this law to me creates a stigma on the law enforcement community." — Rep. Gary Viens

Viens says he never treated anyone differently because of the color of their skin during that career.

“I know so many police officers in this state, and they feel the same way. So it’s almost to me like they’re being picked on,” Viens says. “It’s a stigma. Passing this law to me creates a stigma on the law enforcement community.”

Hughes says he’s not out to target police. He in in fact says he’s worked closely with law enforcement officials to craft the legislation.

But Hughes says policymakers in Vermont need to act quickly and substantively to address the problems that people of color experience in Vermont.

“Every single day, people of color are stopped disproportionately,” Hughes says. “Every single day, people of color are incarcerated disproportionately. And it’s affecting not just individuals’ lives, it’s affecting families’ lives, and it’s affecting their lives for generations.”

Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas Anderson has expressed concerns with elements of the fair and impartial policing legislation. Anderson told members of the Judiciary Committee that he would not oppose the bill. But he says he takes issue with the imposition of a more singular fair and impartial policing policy across agencies.

“I would point out that one size does not necessarily fit all. And I would point out that what the committee is trying to do it make one size fit all,” Anderson says.

The bills missed a key legislative deadline that might have otherwise killed their chances of passing this year. But key Senate lawmakers say they intend to fast track the legislation in an attempt to get the bills through the full Legislature before the session adjourns.

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