Summary of Results
Overrepresentation in Criminal Cases
- Black people in Vermont, on average, are overrepresented in criminal court cases. In 2019, Black people in Vermont were 3.5 times more likely to be defendants in a misdemeanor case and 5.9 times more likely to be defendants in a felony case.
- For most offense categories, Black people are not more likely than White people to be convicted, suggesting that this particular decision-making point is not a major driver of Black-White incarceration disparities.
Incarceration (In/Out Decision)
- On average, Black people are more likely to face incarceration for four offense categories: misdemeanor person, felony property, felony drug, and felony public order crimes.
- The disparity for felony drug and property cases is particularly pronounced: Black people are 18 percentage points more likely to face incarceration in such cases, relative to White people. This result is consistent when analysis is restricted to Vermont residents alone and accounts for in-state criminal history in addition to other key case and defendant characteristics.
Incarceration (Sentence Length)
- There was no evidence that suggests there is a Black-White disparity in minimum incarceration sentence length imposed in Vermont.
To understand the context in which the court system is operating, CSG Justice Center staff examined racial differences in the volume of misdemeanor and felony cases coming to the courts. To analyze racial differences in incoming cases, CSG Justice Center staff used an approach called a relative rate index (RRI).33
An RRI is useful for comparing the rates of an event or outcome between two groups. Here, when the RRI is above 1, it indicates that Black people are defendants in a misdemeanor case at a higher rate than White people in Vermont. During this six-year period, RRIs for misdemeanor cases are all above 1; this indicates that Black people were disproportionately represented in such cases, relative to White people in the state. For example, in 2019, Black people were 3.5 times more likely than White people to be defendants in a misdemeanor case (See Figure 4). A similar story emerges when RRIs are examined for felony cases (See Figure 5).
Figure 4. Black-White Relative Rate Indices, Misdemeanor Cases (2014–2019)34
Figure 5. Black-White Relative Rate Indices, Felony Cases (2014–2019)35
As shown in Figure 5, between 2014 and 2019, Black people are disproportionately represented in felony cases relative to White people. However, this racial disparity is more pronounced for felony cases than for misdemeanor cases. For example, in 2019, Black people were 5.9 times as likely as White people to be a defendant in a felony case. Given the level of disparity seen in felony cases, CSG Justice Center staff additionally examined RRIs for felony cases by type of offense (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Average Annual Black-White Relative Rate Indices, Felony Cases (2014–2019)36
As shown in Figure 6, between 2014 and 2019, Black people were disproportionately likely to be defendants in felony cases across all offense categories, including person, property, drug, motor vehicle, and public order crimes. These disparities are especially dramatic for certain types of offenses. During that period, Black people were 14.6 times more likely to be defendants in a felony drug case compared to White people.
In sum, the RRIs for misdemeanor and felony cases indicate that Black people are defendants in criminal cases in Vermont at rates that exceed rates experienced by White people. Importantly, RRI results indicate that there are substantial differences that emerge even before a judge is involved in a case. There are several decision-making points within the criminal justice system that could potentially contribute to these disparities. For example, law enforcement personnel have some discretion in deciding when to make an arrest or issue a citation. Additionally, state’s attorneys, who are the prosecuting attorneys in Vermont, determine whether to move forward with a case and decide which charges to file.
While this project was not designed to examine factors that contribute to these observed disproportionalities, future work in Vermont should investigate the role of community factors, policing, and prosecutorial decision-making, as national research indicates that each may play a role in causing racial disparity in justice system involvement.37 In the sections that follow, results from more rigorous regression analyses are presented to reveal specific drivers of disparity that policymakers can act upon.
To examine racial disparities in case processing and sentencing outcomes, CSG Justice Center staff employed a statistical method called regression analysis.38 Regression analysis is a common approach for comparing differences in outcomes between two groups, particularly when there is an interest in making an “apples to apples” comparison between those groups. To examine Black-White differences in the likelihood of being convicted of a crime, CSG Justice Center staff used regression to account for baseline differences between groups (e.g., severity of offense, criminal history, demographic characteristics).
Table 3. Offense Categories Examined in Regression Analysis
Additionally, outcomes were assessed for 10 different combinations of offense types (e.g., person, property) and offense level (i.e., misdemeanor, felony), as shown in Table 3. In the figures below, results are reported only for offense categories for which there was a statistically significant Black-White racial difference. In other words, if an offense category does not appear in a graphic below, it is because there was no statistically significant difference identified.
The first outcome examined was the likelihood of conviction in a case (see Figure 7). In the primary analysis sample for this project, over 99 percent of convictions were made via a plea bargain, and less than 1 percent of convictions were made via a trial. The alternative dispositions here include having a case dismissed or being acquitted. Over 99 percent of the time, a case that does not result in a conviction is dismissed (not acquitted), meaning that a determination was made that the case could not proceed due to limitations such as a lack of sufficient evidence or improperly collected evidence.
Figure 7. Adjusted Probability of Conviction, by Offense Category and Race (2014–2019)39
The results from conviction analysis are mixed. After accounting for key case and defendant characteristics, Black people are less likely to be convicted in cases where the top charge is one of the following four offense categories: misdemeanor property, misdemeanor motor vehicle, misdemeanor public order, and felony drug. For example, for misdemeanor property crimes, on average and after accounting for other factors, Black people face conviction about 48 percent of the time, whereas White people face conviction about 59 percent of the time. However, the results reverse when we examine misdemeanor drug cases. Here, Black people face conviction more frequently, about 60 percent of the time, while White people face conviction 48 percent of the time. These results indicate that conviction decisions are not a major driver of racial disparity in Vermont’s criminal justice system and are unlikely to contribute to the disproportionate representation of Black people in Vermont’s prison system.
CSG Justice Center staff additionally assessed the likelihood of receiving a sentence to incarceration among people who had been convicted of a crime (see Figure 8). Specifically, staff examined the likelihood of being sentenced to “straight” incarceration, i.e., prison time without a probation term and without any lenient provisions that allow time to be served in the community, such as a deferred sentence. Alternative sentences included probation, split sentences, deferred or suspended sentences, and pre-approved furlough.
Figure 8. Adjusted Probability of Incarceration, by Offense Category and Race (2014–2019)40
As shown in Figure 8, results from regression analysis indicate that Black people are consistently more likely to be sentenced to incarceration relative to their White counterparts even after adjusting for key case and defendant characteristics described earlier on page 9. Specifically, this is true for four offense categories: misdemeanor person, felony property, felony drug, and felony public order. The most dramatic racial disparities are seen for felony property and felony drug offenses, where Black people are 18 percentage points more likely to receive an incarceration sentence relative to comparable White people.
Table 4. Most Common Felony Drug Offenses, by Race (2014–2019)41
To provide more detail on the types of offenses that lead to incarceration, CSG Justice Center staff analyzed the most common specific felony drug offenses that resulted in incarceration sentences during the study period. As shown in Table 4, results indicate that for White people convicted of a felony drug offense and sentenced to incarceration, cases most frequently involve possession or sales of heroin. In contrast, for Black people sentenced to incarceration for a felony drug conviction, cases most often involve cocaine possession or sales. This finding suggests that any policy response to racial disparities in the Vermont criminal justice system will need to account for multiple types of drugs to be effective.
Finally, CSG Justice Center staff used regression to examine differences in incarceration sentence length imposed by race. After examining differences in minimum incarceration sentence length across the 10 offense categories detailed in Table 3, there were no consistent statistically significant Black-White differences. The results were similar when maximum sentence length was examined as an outcome. Overall, differences in sentence lengths do not appear to be a driver of incarceration disparities in Vermont.
33. For details on how RRIs were calculated, see Technical Appendix.
34. Analysis of 2014-2019 Vermont Judiciary disposition 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.
36. Analysis of 2014–2019 Vermont Judiciary data conducted by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, November 2021.
37. 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), https://doi.org/10.17226/26151; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Proactive Policing: Effects on Crime and Communities (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2018), https://doi.org/10.17226/24928; Christi Metcalfe and Ted Chiricos, “Race, plea, and charge reduction: An assessment of racial disparities in the plea process,” Justice Quarterly 35, no. 2 (2018): 223–253.
38. Roxy Peck, Tom Short, and Chris Olsen, Introduction to Statistics and Data Analysis, 6th edition (Cengage Learning, 2019).
39. Analysis of 2014–2019 Vermont Judiciary data conducted by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, November 2021.