Vermont Law and Graduate School brought a new twist to its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event this Tuesday in the Chase Center. Coupled with the college’s traditional celebration with cupcakes and song, VLGS hosted members of Vermont’s Judiciary Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for a panel discussion, including Vermont Supreme Court justices and the state’s highest-ranking trial judge.
President Rodney Smolla opened the event, welcoming the audience, which included members of the Royalton community as well as students from the law school and the White River Valley High School. He cited quotations from King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he said had been personally important to his law career and he recommended the text to anyone who hasn’t read it.
Next to the dais, VLGS’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Lisa Ryan, who organized the event, shared the civil rights leader’s importance to her.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is just something that is always with me,” she said. “We have so much to thank him for, to honor him, and continue his legacy. We have a commitment to him to continue fighting and not giving up.”
She turned the microphone over to Xusana Davis, the state’s executive director of racial equity, who would preside over the discussion focusing on the question, “What does an equitable legal system look like in Vermont?”
She introduced panel members, Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul L. Reiber, Associate Justice William D. Cohen, Associate Justice Nancy Waples, and Superior Court Chief Superior Judge Thomas A. Zonay, all members of the Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
That commission was established by the Vermont Judiciary to examine and address 2019 data findings which showed significant racial disparities in Vermont’s legal system.
Addressing the Data
According to the commission’s charge and designation document, data analysis by the Council of State Governments in 2019 noted “Black people in Vermont were over three times more likely to be defendants in a misdemeanor case, and almost six times more likely to be defendants in a felony case than White people.”
The analysis reported Black people were also found to be six times more likely to be incarcerated in Vermont than White people.
These disparities are not reflections of the criminality of a racialized group, but are representative of the intended function of the United States carceral system, the report said.
Davis acknowledged other areas where racial inequity is present, including in the housing and education system, before directing panelists towards a conversation about the data presented on inequities within Vermont’s criminal justice system.
She started the discussion asking each panelist what his or her reaction to first hearing those findings.
Reiber said he was, “disappointed and frankly a little bit shocked” by the data.
“We need to critically assess it and critically assess ourselves,” Zonay added.
Waples tied in the racial disparities in criminal sentencing she saw during the War on Drugs, which is cited as the impetus for a major expansion of prisons and mass incarceration of Black Americans, who have historically been criminalized as was brought to the foreground in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book “The New Jim Crow” and Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary “13th.”
“It’s not the system I thought I worked in,” Cohen said. He highlighted the overwhelming whiteness in the state saying, “Vermont is the second whitest state after Maine.”
He went on to say that when defendants of color enter the court room it is likely that no one in the room, not judges, lawyers, or jurors will look like them. Zonay acknowledged that this disparity impacts outcomes.
Cohen and Zonay called for “colorblind” approaches to handling defendants of color, however critics of that approach say it fails to address systemic issues at play in a court room.
The panelists also discussed increasing data collection to get a clearer picture of the issues. Davis reflected, “We still know enough to act now.”
Restoration vs. Retribution
When the panel was opened up to questions submitted by the audience, commission representatives discussed the state’s restorative justice programs.
Restorative justice is one of the state’s responses to the institutional issues within the U.S. carceral system. It is a framework that is inspired by practices from indigenous groups such as Maori family group conferencing, the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu, and peacemaking courts of the Diné, Yurok, Ojibwe, and other nations.
The Hartford Justice Center defines restorative justice as “a victim-centered, community-based approach for responding to harm that was caused and what needs to happen to make things better. The goal is to build understanding, encourage accountability, and provide an opportunity for healing.” The practice is increasingly used as an alternative to penal and carceral systems, as is the case in Vermont.
Waples, who is of Chinese decent, is the only person of color on the state’s supreme court. She has sat on eight benches in 14 counties, brought attention to the disparities in how county restorative justice programs are administered throughout the state, noting that the differences often depend on the people involved in the program from county to county. Waples and Zonay opined that restorative justice is much needed, with Zonay highlighting that each case is unique and some lend themselves readily to restorative justice, while for others a traditional trial is more appropriate.
Vermont Law and Graduate School is home to the National Center on Restorative Justice and offers a restorative justice masters program.
During the Civil Rights Movement the law and direct action were central tools to dismantling segregation. Each panel member emphasized how the law continues to be a tool of empowerment and encouraged young people to choose paths in life that included legal study, as Justice Waples expressed to “protect yourself and others.”