Transforming Vermont’s Criminal Justice System

June 5, 2019

Vermont state house, Montpelier, VT

Vermont has been our home for more than 40 years, ever since we opened our very first Scoop Shop in 1978. We love it here. We love how our little state has so often led the nation (when it comes to things like LGBTQ rights and pot legalization, to name just two) in social progress.

But Vermont has a long way to go when it comes to transforming its criminal justice system.

We’ve worked on a lot of important issues over the years because we believe that businesses have an important role in bringing about change. Sometimes the things we care about take us across the country, even across the globe. But sometimes there’s work to do right here at home. We hope you’ll join us and our partners, Justice for All, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (VCJR), and ACLU Vermont, as we work to make sure that all Vermonters—especially those that have historically been denied their rights—are protected and respected.


Did Vermont Solve Racism?

For a state with a reputation as a progressive paradise, Vermont really struggles with racism. It’s at the heart of some of the biggest challenges facing our criminal justice system.

Many Vermonters would like to believe that racism isn’t a problem here—that racism is something that happens somewhere else. Why? Well, there’s no denying that Vermont, by most measures, IS a very progressive state. Vermonters take a lot of pride in that. But there’s also no denying that Vermont is very, VERY white. So… which is more likely? That a state with so few people of color managed to solve racism? Or that white people (94.5% of the population) just don’t notice the racism that’s actually here?


Racial Profiling

And it IS here. As we know, system racism exists everywhere. Take a look at these stats: Black drivers in Vermont are two times more likely to be arrested after a stop than white drivers, and four times more likely to be searched (even though they’re less likely to have contraband). Black drivers are also more likely to be ticketed.

The Vermont State Police established a Fair and Impartial Policing Committee back in 2009. Then, in 2014, a law was passed requiring police agencies to track and analyze racial data. But clearly, a lot of work remains to be done.


Vermont’s Prison Population

Vermont is a small state, but our rate of imprisonment is higher than that of most countries, including Brazil, Turkey, and Iran. Our prison population, while finally declining somewhat recently, has nonetheless tripled since the 1980s!

Also, like we said, Vermont is very white. And yet, somehow Vermont has the highest incarceration rate for Black men in the entire country, and the third highest rate for Black adults overall. While only 1.4% of the Vermont population is Black, Black people account for 8.5% of the Vermont prison population.


Far From Home

Vermont currently has about 2100 people behind bars (if that doesn’t sound like a lot, remember that our total population is only about 626,000). But, because Vermont’s in-state prisons have run out of room, 234 inmates are being held in a prison in Mississippi—1366 miles away. 

This is nothing new, sadly. Vermont has been sending prisoners out of state since 1998. Prison is hard enough on the families of the incarcerated—now imagine having to travel nearly 1400 miles just to visit a loved one. If overcrowding is the culprit, then we have an idea that might help: stop locking up so many people in the first place!


Our Partners

None of these challenges, or any of the others that face our state’s criminal justice system, is easy to resolve. But we’re lucky in Vermont to have partners truly dedicated to ensuring justice for everyone who calls Vermont home.

  • We’re working with Justice for All on legislative priorities, with a goal of putting an end to systemic racism in Vermont.
  • VCJR has campaigned against money bail and unnecessary prosecutions, supporting instead diversion programs that keep people home with their families and in their communities.
  • We love ACLU VT’s Smart Justice Campaign, which has three main goals: holding prosecutors accountable, winning criminal justice reforms in the state legislature, and advancing racial justice across the system.


What’s Next

No, Vermont isn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But we’re inspired by all the people working so hard to repair and rebuild the system. In fact, there’s quite a bit of hopeful news. The prison population is declining. The rate of incarceration for Black men and women is awful, but it’s slightly better than it was a few years ago. And, notably, Vermont has a remarkable network of community justice centers throughout the state geared to reducing incarceration and strengthening communities.

Please join us in supporting and advancing the important work underway to transform Vermont’s criminal justice system.The progress we make here will inspire change all over the country.