MONTPELIER -- A study seeking to determine if members of minority groups are treated more harshly by the Vermont criminal justice system than white defendants should be finished before the Legislature adjourns this spring, said the official leading the study.
When the Legislature commissioned the study by The Vermont Center for Justice Research in 2012, it set that December as the deadline for the report but it was delayed because of problems getting the required information from the FBI, said Center for Justice Research Executive Director Max Schlueter.
Now his organization and the FBI have agreed on what information will be provided and they are now working to determine the mechanics of how the information will be shared, said Schlueter, who briefed the House Judiciary Committee Friday on the progress of the study.
"The Legislature asked us to look into disparities in sentencing," Schlueter said before the hearing. "But in large part they were really interested in whether or not the sentences of people of color, how does that compare with sentences for white defendants."
Schlueter said there was no disagreement that minorities are disproportionally represented in Vermont's criminal justice system.
It's an issue that in one form or another has bedeviled Vermont law enforcement for some time. Separate studies released in 2012 determined minorities were more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers. Vermont police leaders are determined to stamp out biased policing.
Schlueter said that going beyond traffic stops, anecdotal evidence leads many to believe there are more minorities in Vermont prisons because they came to the state and committed serious crimes. And before arriving in Vermont many already had significant criminal records that would prompt prosecutors and judges to seek lengthier sentences against them.
But statistically it has been impossible to determine if the minority defendants are being treated more harshly because the studies have only looked at the defendant's Vermont record. To make an accurate comparison, a study needs to take into account the complete history of the individual.
So the Legislature appropriated $20,000 and the federal government added another $23,000 to get the entire criminal history of a representative sample of defendants over a five-year period.
Schlueter said his office and the FBI have agreed to share the records, specifically looking at histories of charges that include domestic violence, assault and marijuana and cocaine possession.
"It's a troubling question and our goal, really, is to either put it to rest and say, ‘you know, the courts are in fact color blind' or say ‘that's a good story about all these bad guys coming up from the Bronx, but it really isn't true,"' Schlueter said.