Vermont House Bill Tackles Issues of Racial Bias

By Amelia Pollard

As one of the whitest states in the country, Vermont is attempting to adjust for racial bias after data has surfaced surrounding discrimination in traffic stops. The demand for legislative action has stemmed from a state-based non-profit called Justice For All.

According to a study conducted by the organization Crime Research Group, black drivers in Vermont are twice as likely to be arrested after a traffic stop than white drivers. The non-profit was selected as the vendor to collect the traffic stop and race data by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. These figures drove Justice For All’s Co-founder and Executive Director, Mark Hughes, to propose a bill to address racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The bill, H.308, has already passed through both the Congress and Senate, and is now awaiting approval from Governor Phil Scott. According to the proposed legislation, the bill includes a 13-person “advisory panel” to direct the state in “racial disparities in the criminal and juvenile justice system.”

With the rise in statistics, such as those from The Sentencing Project, which cited the stark racial disparity of incarceration throughout Vermont, lawmakers have become determined to address the issues of racial bias throughout the criminal justice system.

In regards to promoting and drafting legislation, “data is the linchpin of all monitoring capability,” Hughes said.
The Crime Research Group’s data has continued to play a significant role in promoting the bill. They were selected as the primary vendor for data collection of traffic stops by the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council last year. All of the data is posted publicly on their website, and provides greater transparency in the criminal justice system.

“I think law enforcement has been very open to providing the data, and I think for the most part Vermont State Police has done a pretty incredible job of training all of their officers on how data needs to be collected and published,” the Crime Research Group’s Executive Director Karen Gennette said. “I think that we’ll find many law enforcement agencies will be willing and interested in doing the same thing.”

Although the bill has garnered support by politicians through this data, some are unsatisfied with the stigma that the advisory panel is pegging to the police force. Representative Gary Viens (R) of Newport has expressed pushback on the bill, particularly with his 32 years of personal experience in law enforcement.

Regardless of debate in Congress, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Thursday, April 21, after a third reading. Senator Jeanette White (D) addressed the fear of stigma that Viens and others had expressed by claiming in an interview with Vermont Digger that the advisory board was meant to address the system as a whole, rather than a specific sector.

“This bill, when passed, will be a small step in the right direction towards addressing what we know now to be an issue in the state,” Hughes said. “It’s my hope that this bill will continue to raise awareness and attention.”