MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — A proposal in the Vermont Legislature would create a new data system on racial disparities in the Green Mountain State, which would then be used to identify and address bias in the criminal justice system.
The House Committee on Judiciary held a hearing on the bill, H.137, which would create a Bureau of Racial Justice Statistics.
“It’s actually the start of a conversation for true data-driven change,” said Abigail Crocker of the National Center on Restorative Justice. “To truly understand the scope of issues, identify and target measures to address them, and then measure the outcomes.”
Vermont lawmakers and other state leaders often hear testimony on individual accounts of racial bias in the state, but the larger statistical picture is often unclear.
The Bureau of Racial Justice Statistics would track demographic data for defendants, attorneys, judges, jurors, and law enforcement officers. It would also track pretrial detention and release data, including conditions of release, bail amounts, and defendants held without bail. Sentencing data would also be included, among other figures.
Xusana Davis, Vermont’s Executive Director of Racial Equity, said even though there are some numbers currently available, her office is often working with a blurry picture.
“The centralization and uniformity of our collection is where we can really make improvements, and so I think this proposal stands to do that, the question is just how do we structure it organizationally in a way that makes sense and is sustainable,” Davis said.
That question of where the Bureau would be housed within state government is an ongoing debate – a place like the Agency of Digital Services would be well-equipped to collect data, but Davis and others wondered if the agency lacks the expertise needed to analyze racial disparities.
Karen Gennette, executive director of the Crime Research Group, suggested housing the Bureau of Racial Justice Statistics in Davis’ Office of Racial Equity.
“The Office of Racial Equity was set up as a place to identify and work to eradicate systemic racism within state government,” Gennette said. “This is an opportunity to raise up the office to do what it was meant to do.”
Davis said she would be welcome to that idea if there was enough resources dedicated towards the cause, but had concerns as well: The Office of Racial Equity itself is housed under the Agency of Administration, and she believes it’s already not a very natural fit next to departments like taxes and finance.
“I wonder if this Bureau would be better situated in another agency that’s more topically or substantively relevant,” Davis said. “I’m thinking about this not just for this particular work, but down the line when we create six more bureaus and units, and suddenly we have a Pluto Kuiper Belt situation where nothing seems to fit.”
In conjunction with the proposed Bureau of Racial Justice Statistics, the bill would also create a five-member advisory panel composed of appointees nominated by the Vermont Speaker of the House, the Governor, the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission.
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