Panel Wants More Resources To Investigate Racial Bias In Vt. Criminal Justice System

Dec 10, 2019

Lawmakers need to beef up resources at the Vermont Human Rights Commission in order to investigate allegations of racial bias in the criminal justice system, according to an advisory panel created by the Legislature.

Rates of incarceration among African Americans in Vermont are among the highest in the nation; two years ago, the Vermont Legislature created an advisory panel to address the issue.

The Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel issued a report this week saying racial bias in the criminal justice system may be responsible for the disparity. The panel is urging lawmakers to make the Human Rights Commission a “central clearinghouse” for bias-related complaints.

Etan Nasreddin-Longo, who chairs the 13 person panel, said Tuesday the Human Rights Commission is well-suited for the role.

“They do this in a lot of other areas in state government. They do it around accommodation and such,” Nasreddin-Longo said. “People call them when they’re talking about, you know, 'I feel like I’ve been discriminated against around housing.'”

Members of the panel say lawmakers should assign a dedicated agency to investigate allegations of bias. And while the Human Rights Commission could likely fill that role, the panel says the commission will need additional staff in order to “prioritize race-related bias complaints from across state government and resolve them in a timely manner.”

The panel also wants lawmakers to require more data collection from county courthouses. The report says lack of data related to charging and sentencing decisions, for instance, has prevented policymakers from determining why rates of incarceration among African Americans are so much higher than white people.

“I’m looking at what we’ve got, and going, ‘Wow, this is a mess,’” Nasreddin-Long said Tuesday. “It needs to be cleaned up.”