Collecting and understanding racial data on the outcome of “high-impact, high-discretion moments” in the juvenile and criminal legal systems for Vermont’s Black, indigenous and person of color population takes a commitment of people and money — a commitment a state commission member asked lawmakers to affirm Thursday.
A report delivered to the State House and Senate judiciary committees on the effort suggested a staff of at least three people to make sense of data generated by Vermont law enforcement systems — data which, in some cases, is not compatible with other systems.
The systemic racism the state is trying to address through its laws did not appear overnight, and it came at a significant financial cost to the people who created it, said Etan Nasreddin-Longo, the chair of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel, better known as RDAP.
“It became clear that no one in state government on their own could do the huge lift needed here to define, gather and analyze” the data, Nasreddin-Longo said.
But Nasreddin-Longo then made the case that a lack of resources could not be an excuse for not doing the work.
“Huge sums of money” went into building slave ships and maintaining slavery in homes and plantations, as well as the perpetuation of racial discrimination, Nasreddin-Longo told the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
“None of this is free. To undo this is also not free,” he said.
What the effort does need is an understanding through data on the personal impacts of systemic racism in the judicial system, he said. “But this is going to require an outlay of capital.”
“What I am trying to say here fundamentally is to say ‘there’s no money’ may at once be true and may also be supporting the very system this body seeks to interrogate or dismantle,” Nasreddin- Longo said. “Saying ‘there’s no money’ is an ideological statement when discussing dismantling of systems of oppression. Choices are being made,” he said.
Members reacted to Nasreddin-Longo’s statement with suggestions of how the state might leverage resources to achieve the goal. Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D/P-Burlington, suggested that the Code for America project might be able to help, a suggestion Nasreddin-Longo welcomed.
And state Rep. Selene Coburn, D/P-Burlington, the House Progressive caucus leader, told Nasreddin-Longo his message was “really powerful and important for us to hear.”
The request for a three-person staff to handle the work came from Connecticut’s approach to the same problem, and the statute creating that approach in Connecticut was included in the RDAP report. State Senate Judiciary Committee chairperson Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and House Judiciary chairperson Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, are pursuing a bill along the same lines, Grad said.
“Given we have reports dating back to 2017 I think it’s time for action,” Sears said in an email after the hearing.
During the hearing, Nasreddin-Longo, of Putney, referred committee members to a flow chart showing the different computer systems used by the state’s law enforcement and criminal justice agencies as of September.
While the picture has improved since, it “shows the tangled web” between relevant agencies, Nasreddin-Longo said, and hence the need for personnel in a state department dedicated to the work.
The report lists moments “at which conscious or unconscious bias can make an entry” into decisions having long-lasting impacts on people’s lives, Nasreddin-Longo said. “We deeply believe that all of them ... are of great concern and need attention and focus.”
For example, in juvenile encounters with law enforcement, mandatory reporters, schools and school resource officers, the data sought would include the demographics of the juvenile as well as the attorneys, the judge, DCF officers, law enforcement, complainants involved in the case, and juvenile’s parents. That information should include data on race, sex, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, age, and language use, the report said.
The report was mandated by a law passed by the Legislature last year.