Between January and December 2021, the U.S. DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) provided funding for The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center to conduct an analysis of racial equity in Vermont’s criminal justice system to support the ongoing efforts of the state’s Justice Reinvestment (JR) II Working Group.
Earlier data analyses by CSG Justice Center staff, completed in 2019 during the first phase of Vermont’s Justice Reinvestment II Initiative, found preliminary evidence of Black-White racial disparities in the court and Department of Corrections (DOC) systems; however, an in-depth analysis was not possible at that stage due to time constraints and data availability. In light of these initial findings, the JR II Working Group requested further study of racial disparity across the state’s criminal justice system.
This project focuses on Black-White racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system due to several data and methodological limitations (detailed in the Analytic Approach section).
However, national research shows that criminal justice disparities impact other racial and ethnic groups as well.11 The CSG Justice Center’s recommendations offer strategies that Vermont can adopt to make it possible to conduct a more comprehensive assessment of disparities in the future.
The purpose of this new analysis was to investigate patterns of racial disparity over time and provide insight into the drivers behind them, with the goal of providing the JR II Working Group with actionable recommendations to address racial disparities moving forward. Consequently, this effort focused strategically on disparities in sentencing, which can be addressed by policy and practice changes within the criminal justice system.
The CSG Justice Center’s racial equity analysis included the following key components: (a) high-level analysis of sentencing and corrections patterns across racial groups; (b) in-depth analysis of sentencing patterns across racial groups and of factors that contribute to any observed disparities, and (c) an assessment of existing data to identify ways to improve future analysis and monitoring of racial disparity. This project was designed to complement and build upon Vermont’s ongoing work to address racial disparities in the state, particularly those of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel (RDAP) and efforts to institute a new Office of Racial Justice Statistics.12
This report describes results from analysis of criminal justice system data for the six-year period between January 2014 and December 2019 and is organized into the following sections:
- A background section that reviews findings from the CSG Justice Center’s 2019 analysis of racial disparity in Vermont’s courts and corrections systems and provides context from the broader research literature on racial disparity in the criminal justice system in the U.S.
- An analytic approach section, which provides an overview of the data sources and quantitative methods used in this analysis
- A summary of results addressing the extent to which Black-White racial disparities exist in criminal case volume, case processing, and sentencing decisions
- Data-driven policy recommendations that outline a path forward to advance racial equity in the state
Throughout the United States, Black people face incarceration at rates that are grossly disproportionate to their representation in the general population despite progress reducing such racial disparities during the last two decades.13 A large body of research documents the role of historical and ongoing forms of systemic racism in creating and perpetuating these racial disparities.14
Importantly, national research also shows that Black-White criminal justice system disparities are especially pronounced for drug offenses: Black people are three to four times more likely to be arrested and nine times more likely to face state prison incarceration for drug offenses relative to White people, yet these differences are not explained by differences in drug use or sales.15
Vermont has low average crime and incarceration rates compared to other states;16 however, despite those achievements, the state’s criminal justice system is rife with the same types of racial disparities that are shown in national research.17 In fact, for Black-White incarceration disparities, Vermont fares worse than the national average.18
The CSG Justice Center’s FY2019 analysis of Vermont’s corrections population included the following key findings:19
- Black Vermonters were overrepresented in all corrections populations relative to their representation in the Vermont general population; these disparities were most pronounced among sentenced and detained incarcerated populations (see Figure 1).
- Relative to the White incarcerated population, a greater share of Black incarcerated people were convicted of drug offenses; at the same time, a lesser share of the Black incarcerated population was convicted of property offenses.
Additionally, CSG Justice Center staff’s previous analysis of racial disparities in the FY2019 (July 2018–June 2019) corrections population included the following key findings:
- Without controls for crime type or criminal history, Black people appeared to be incarcerated for misdemeanors and felonies more often than White people.
- Among those incarcerated for felony offenses, average sentence lengths did not vary between Black and White people.
Racial disparity refers to any situation in which different racial groups experience unequal treatment or outcomes.20 Evidence of disparity is distinct from understanding the processes that contribute to it.
Figure 1. Relative Rate Indices: Vermont DOC Snapshot Population, by Type and Race (FY2019)21
In FY2019, Black people were six times more likely to be part of the sentenced incarcerated population relative to White people. Black people were disproportionately represented in all other corrections populations as well.
As part of the CSG Justice Center’s qualitative engagement work during Justice Reinvestment II, Vermont stakeholders reported perceptions that racial disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system—particularly for drug offenses—were due to crimes committed by people from out of state, specifically individuals who traveled to or through Vermont for the express purpose of trafficking drugs and who often had longer criminal histories that became factors in sentencing decisions.22 The implication or direct reasoning of this thinking was that nothing inherent to Vermont’s actors or systems was responsible for disparate treatment of Black people. As a result, CSG Justice Center staff designed the current study to account for defendants’ state of residence. Importantly, this perception by some stakeholders was not supported by empirical results of this analysis.
It is important to note that racial disparity in incarceration populations and rates can be caused by a multitude of factors that originate both within and outside of the criminal justice system23 (as depicted in Figure 2 below), and research shows that disparities in sentencing are one important contributing factor.24
Figure 2. Sources of Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System
This analysis focuses strategically on disparities in court case processing and sentencing, which can be addressed by policy and practice changes within the criminal justice system and are within the scope of the JRI activities. Specifically, this project investigates racial disparities at three key points within the court system: the inflow of criminal cases, the likelihood of conviction in a case, and sentencing decisions related to incarceration.
CSG Justice Center staff used quantitative research methods to conduct an analysis of racial equity and develop data-driven policy recommendations to address observed racial disparities in Vermont.25 Data for this project were obtained from the Vermont Judiciary, the Vermont Crime Information Center (housed in the Department of Public Safety), and the U.S. Census, and datasets were cleaned and analyzed using standard statistical methods, including relative rate index calculations and regression analysis.26 Additionally, CSG Justice Center staff engaged with JR II Working Group and community members to refine and finalize policy recommendations. Through these activities, CSG Justice Center staff aimed to answer the following key analysis questions (see Figure 3):
(1) Are there racial disproportionalities in the volume of felony and misdemeanor cases filed?
(2) Are there racial disparities in conviction across offense types after accounting for key case and defendant characteristics, including Vermont residency and criminal history?
(3) Are there racial disparities in incarceration sentences across offense types after accounting for key case and defendant characteristics, including Vermont residency and criminal history?
Figure 3. Analysis Questions
Quantitative Data Sources and Measures
Vermont Judiciary: The main dataset analyzed for this project was obtained via a data use agreement between the CSG Justice Center and the Vermont Judiciary. Court staff shared data on all criminal felony and misdemeanor court cases disposed between January 1, 2014, and December 31, 2019.27 After excluding cases that were out of the scope of study (e.g., fish and game violations, cases transferred to juvenile court, or cases missing key information), the primary analysis sample included a total of 79,570 cases. A secondary set of analyses were also conducted, using a subset of the main analysis restricted only to people who were Vermont in-state residents at the time a case was filed. This secondary analysis sample consisted of 68,471 cases in total. Findings from the primary analysis are presented in the Results section of this report; however, conclusions are based on results from both the primary and secondary analyses. Details on the development of the analytic sample and secondary analysis results are available in the Technical Appendix.
Vermont Department of Public Safety Crime Information Center: In addition to court data, CSG Justice Center staff obtained in-state criminal history information via a data use agreement with the Vermont Department of Public Safety Crime Information Center (VCIC). VCIC maintains a statewide repository of criminal history data, including information from law enforcement agencies and the court system.
Court cases: CSG Justice Center staff analyzed information at the case level. To identify unique criminal cases, charges that were filed on the same day with the same case number listed were grouped into a single case. Cases were classified by offense level (misdemeanor or felony) as well as offense category. Cases that included at least one felony charge were categorized as a felony case, and cases with exclusively misdemeanor charges were classified as a misdemeanor case. Additionally, each case was classified according to the most severe charge filed in a case (e.g., drug offense, property offense) using a severity index from Vermont’s Crime Research Group, Inc. (CRG). CRG is a nonprofit agency that contracts with the Vermont Department of Public Safety to carry out state Statistical Analysis Center activities,28 such as criminal justice analysis to support policy development.
This analysis focuses on disparities between only Black and White defendants as a result of two limitations:
The regression methods used in this analysis require a minimum sample size, and data available did not include enough individuals from other racial and ethnic groups to meet those requirements.
The Vermont Judiciary does not receive data from law enforcement on Hispanic ethnicity separate from race. Prior to August 2020, DOC also did not collect data on Hispanic ethnicity separate from race. As a result, the data used for this analysis likely underrepresent the proportion of people who would identify as Hispanic, which limits any conclusions regarding Hispanic disparities in Vermont’s criminal justice system.
Key measures and quantitative methods: To understand whether there are racial disproportionalities in cases coming into the court system (Analysis Question 1), relative rate indices were calculated.29 Additionally, regression analysis was employed to examine three main case processing and sentencing outcomes, including the following: whether a defendant was convicted of any charges in a case (Analysis Question 2); among cases with a conviction, whether the sentence included incarceration in state prison, and among cases with an incarceration sentence, the length of incarceration time imposed (Analysis Question 3). Notably, in Vermont, incarceration sentences are served at correctional facilities run by the DOC.30
CSG Justice Center staff collected and coded two types of additional information to isolate potential sources of disparities: case characteristics and defendant characteristics. Case characteristics31 included the offense level and category, the total number of charges filed in a case, the year in which the case was disposed, and the county in which the case was processed. Defendant characteristics included race (Black or White), gender, age at the time of case filing, and Vermont or out-of-state residency at the time of case filing. The primary analysis (described above) accounted for each of the case and defendant characteristics just described; the secondary analysis, which was restricted only to defendants who were Vermont residents, additionally accounted for in-state criminal history. Average characteristics of defendants in the primary analysis are summarized in Table 1 below.
Table 1. Characteristics of Defendants in the Primary Analytic Sample32
As with any analysis project, there were some factors that could not be accounted for due to limited data availability. For example, the judiciary’s administrative system does not currently track details about decisions made by the prosecuting attorneys or whether the case included a victim’s statement; therefore, such details were not available for this analysis.
Table 2 below summarizes key details of the analytic approach, including information on research questions, outcomes examined, case counts, data sources, and analysis conducted.
Table 2. Summary of Analytic Approach and Results
11. William J. Sabol, Thaddeus L. Johnson, and Alexander Caccavale, Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex (Washington, DC: Council on Criminal Justice, 2019).
12. Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel, Report of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel Systems Advisory Panel concerning Act 65 – the creation of a data entity to aggregate and analyze data related to systemic racial bias and disparities within the criminal and juvenile justice systems (Vermont: Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Advisory Panel, 2021), https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Legislative-Reports/ACT-65-RDAP-REPORT-FINAL.pdf.
13. E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2019 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020); Ashley Nellis, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons (The Sentencing Project, 2021); Sabol, Johnson, and Caccavale, Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex. This discussion focuses on Black-White disparities, which are the most relevant to the analysis presented in this report. However, as noted in this report, other BIPOC groups also face disparities in the criminal justice system that are equally important and urgent to address.
14. Fong, McRoy, and Dettlaff, “Disproportionality and Disparities”; Travis, Western, and Redburn, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.” For an overview of this topic, see Susan Nembhard and Lily Robin, Racial and Ethnic Disparities throughout the Criminal Legal System: A Result of Racist Policies and Discretionary Practices (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2021). For a discussion of the recent literature on this topic, see “There’s Overwhelming Evidence that the Criminal Justice System is Racist,” editorial, Washington Post, June 10, 2020,
15. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 22, 2020, Vermont Justice Reinvestment Working Group Racial Disparity Analysis, Presentation to the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel Subcommittee; Mitchell and Caudy, “Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests”; Rothwell, “Drug Offenders in American Prisons: The Critical Difference Between Stock and Flow”; Travis, Western, and Redburn, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”
16. Cassondra Warney, Ed Weckerly, and Ellen Whelan-Wuest, “Vermont Justice Reinvestment II Working Group Meeting” (PowerPoint presentation, Vermont Justice Reinvestment Initiative II, August 26, 2019); Carson, Prisoners in 2019.
17. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, “Vermont Justice Reinvestment II Working Group Racial Disparity Analysis,” (PowerPoint presentation, Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel Subcommittee, September 22, 2020); Nellis, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.
19. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 22, 2020, Vermont Justice Reinvestment Working Group Racial Disparity Analysis, Presentation to the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel Subcommittee.
20. Meetings between The Council of State Governments Justice Center and Vermont Justice Reinvestment Working Group members and stakeholders, August 2019–January 2020.
21. Analysis of FY2019 Vermont Department of Corrections data and 2010–2019 U.S. Census Bureau State Population by Characteristics data conducted by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, November 2021.
22. Development Services Group, Inc., Disproportionate Minority Contact (Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2014).
23. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Addressing the Drivers of Criminal Justice Involvement to Advance Racial Equity: Proceedings of a Workshop in Brief (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2021); Stan Orchowsky, “Administering ‘Race Neutral’ Justice: What Works?” Presentation to the National Criminal Justice Association, Cambiare Consulting, Sep. 17, 2019, https://www.cambiareconsulting.com/resources; Travis, Western, and Redburn, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”
24. Travis W. Franklin, “The State of Race and Punishment in America: Is Justice Really Blind?” Journal of Criminal Justice 59 (2018): 18–28; Ryan D. King and Michael T. Light, “Have Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Sentencing Declined?” Crime and Justice 48, no. 1 (2019): 365–437; Michael T. Light, “The Declining Significance of Race in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from US Federal Courts” Social Forces (2021), https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soab018; Ojmarrh Mitchell, “A Meta-Analysis of Race and Sentencing Research: Explaining the Inconsistencies,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 21, no. 4 (2005): 439–466.
25. During the project’s planning phase, CSG Justice Center staff submitted a research plan and obtained Institutional Review Board approval to conduct this work from CSG Justice Center’s partner, the University of Southern Maine National Review Board.
26. These methods are described in brief on pp. 7–8. Additionally, a detailed description of methods used is available in the Technical Appendix.
27. “Guide for New Legislators,” Vermont Judiciary, 2019, accessed June 14, 2021, https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/sites/default/files/documents/Guide%20for%20New%20Legislators%20011619.pdf. Vermont has a Unified Court System, and all criminal cases are filed in the criminal division of the Superior Court, which has one unit located in each of the state’s 14 counties.
28. “Vermont’s Statistical Analysis Center and Crime Research Group, Frequently Asked Questions,” Crime Research Group, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.crgvt.org/uploads/5/2/2/2/52222091/sac_faqs.pdf; “Statistical Analysis Centers,” Justice Research and Statistics Association, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.jrsa.org/sac/index.html.
29. See Technical Appendix for details.
30. “Department of Corrections,” Vermont Agency of Human Services Department of Corrections, accessed June 14, 2021, https://doc.vermont.gov/.
31. For detailed summary statistics for the analytic sample, see Technical Appendix.
32. Analysis of 2014–2019 Vermont Judiciary data conducted by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, November 2021.