Law and Order: Discriminatory Intent

While the bulk of our attention was focused on Dan French’s abject surrender to the Omicron variant, we got hit with a double dose of bad news regarding the equity of our justice system. Or should I say the lack thereof.

The first hit was a study showing that Black people were six times as likely to be jailed in Vermont as white people. The second was the latest installment in a series of studies showing a substantial racial disparity in traffic stops, searches and seizures. Those are, respectively, the endpoint and the beginning of the so-called “justice” system.

Can there be any doubt that we have a big problem in our law-n-order process? Can there be any doubt that Black people are getting the short end of the stick?

Nope.

Well, unless your name is “John Klar,” but more on that later.

Stop me if you’ve seen this movie before. Statistics showing racial disparities are revealed. They are met with furrowed brows and Expressions of Earnest ConcernTM, along with determination to Get To The Bottom Of This. Time passes, another round of statistics is revealed, lather, rinse, repeat. Makes me tired, sad, and mad.

Last Thursday, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments presented its latest findings to three legislative committees in a joint hearing. Summary: Bad news smothered in bad news with bad news sprinkles on top. Black people were more than six times more likely to be jailed than white people. Blacks were seven times as likely as white people to be charged in a case with a person listed as a victim. And Black people were 14 times as likely to be charged in felony drug cases.

Also, in case you’re preparing to launch that old “out-of-state Blacks commit crimes in Vermont and skew the numbers” excuse (cough*JohnKlar*cough), well, the Justice Center took that into account. When only Vermont residents were included, the racial disparities remained about the same.

As for the obligatory Expressions of Earnest ConcernTM, House Judiciary chair Maxine Grad talked of starting “the very important conversation,” which is often where these issues start and end. We’ll see how “action” plays into it. And Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber talked of creating a commission on racial justice for the state judiciary. Commissions are nice. If anybody pays any attention to what they report. Which is seldom, if ever.

Then came UVM prof and Bearer of Bad Racial News Stephanie Seguino, armed with fresh figures showing that racial disparities in traffic policing continued at the same level in 2020 even as the total number of traffic stops plunged by 40%.

As usual, Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over as their white counterparts. Blacks were three times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, despite the fact that police are more likely to discover contraband in searches of white folks. Racial disparities were most pronounced, according to Seguino and colleagues, when officers pulled over someone for a minor offense because they believed the vehicle’s occupants were involved in a more serious crime. “Law enforcement tends to be more suspicious of people who are Black and brown,” Seguino said.

Well, yeah.

We’ve been shining a light in these dark corners of our justice system for some time, but the racial disparities haven’t gotten significantly better. Black motorists and passengers are still disproportionately targeted, and Black people are far more likely to be jailed.

Take these two reports together, and I have to wonder where exactly the chicken/egg dynamic plays into it. If Black people are more likely to be pulled over and searched, how does that contribute to the skewed incarceration rates noted above?

And how do the intermediate steps — processing, referral to prosecutors, decision to bring charges, pursue convictions or demand incarceration as part of a plea deal, and sentencing — play into this apparently systemic discrimination against people of color? Where are the pressure points? Or is every cog in the wheel equally complicit?

There is still much to learn on this issue. We have barely begun keeping racial statistics for some of this stuff, and have yet to begin in other areas. But we can’t wait until all the learning is complete, which it will never be. We have to start figuring out how to eliminate implicit bias and make our justice system equitable for all.

Of course, there are those who stubbornly believe in Vermont exceptionalism. Farmer/Philosopher/Failed Candidate John Klar is among their number. In an opinion piece from January 2021 (but I’m sure he hasn’t changed his mind), he claimed that these studies are meant “to slander Vermont.”

In the musty recesses of Klar’s mind, the disparities are due to “police efforts arresting inner-city gangs transporting narcotics to Vermont” and “When Vermont police arrest black or hispanic (lower-case letters his) out-of-state fentanyl dealers, of course the incarceration rate of blacks will increase.”

Now, he offers no evidence of these hordes of “inner-city” interlopers despoiling our fair land. He simply assumes that said hordes are responsible for any alleged racial disparity in policing, prosecution and incarceration. It’s gotta be the Blacks’ fault, right? Specifically, it’s gotta be Outsider Blacks unfairly tainting good old Vermont institutions.

It’s disturbingly reminiscent of former Maine governor Paul LePage’s infamous comment about “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty… They come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, then they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Klar has a more polished presentation than the antediluvian LePage, but they’re both peddling the same racist shit.

When Klar had to deal with an actual statistic — that only 1.6% of Blacks imprisoned in Vermont are from outside the state — he made a colossal mathematical blunder:

But Vermont is only 1`.4% black — “just 1.6%” is “just” 114% of Vermont’s black demographic!

So… he’s saying that there are more out-of-state Blacks behind bars than there are actual Black people in Vermont?

Uhh, John? I think you’re confused. Or perhaps engaging in intentional misdirection. The 1.4% is the number of Black Vermonters. The 1.6% is the percentage of Blacks imprisoned in Vermont. The former denominator is the state’s total population. The latter denominator is the total number of people behind bars in Vermont. That’s a much smaller number, and your claim is nonsense.

There’s no ducking the reality: Black people in Vermont are more likely to be swallowed up in the “justice” system than whites, at all levels of the system. The inequities persist. The truth is well-established. The only question now is, are we satisfied with the status quo, or will we do the hard work of dismantling systemic bias?

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