Scott signs racial justice bill into law

MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation into law Wednesday that looks to advance racial justice reforms in the state.

The bill, H.308, which was passed by lawmakers earlier this month, aims to address racial disparities in the criminal and juvenile justice system. It creates a new, 13-member advisory panel within the office of the attorney general that will provide recommendations to address racial disparities in both the criminal and juvenile justice system around the state.

Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office and the Human Rights Commission are tasked with developing a strategy to address racial disparities within various state systems, including education, labor and employment, housing, healthcare and economic development. Finally, the new law requires the Criminal Justice Training Council to review the state’s fair and impartial policing policing to ensure it is in compliance with federal law.

Gov. Phil Scott (VPB/Neal Goswami)

“There’s much more work to be done to address racial disparities in our systems, but Vermont is once again demonstrating its commitment to working toward more equitable, fair and just practices with the passage of H.308,” the governor said at his weekly news conference.

The bill had strong tri-partisan support in the Legislature and was strongly backed by several advocacy groups, including Justice For All and the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, a sponsor of the bill, called the law “historic” in a statement Wednesday.

“This bill is historic, crucial and powerful in its comprehensive approach to addressing racial disparities and implicit bias in our justice system,” she said. “The coalition of Gov. Scott’s administrative team, the Attorney General’s Office, Senate and House leadership, law enforcement and nearly three dozen agencies, is a testament to the willingness to tackle some of our most difficult and damaging social justice challenges. As a bill sponsor, I thank Gov. Scott for supporting this bill and responding to the clear voices of Vermonters who agree that justice cannot wait.”

James Lyall, executive director of ACLU of Vermont, thanked lawmakers and advocates for their work on the law and Scott for signing it.

“This bill is a meaningful and important step forward, and a testament to the tireless advocacy of a broad coalition of Vermonters who will not rest until Vermont tackles head on the racial injustice that is so prevalent in this state,” Lyall said. “In addition to establishing a racial justice oversight panel to combat profound racial disparities, this bill also moves Vermont a step closer to a uniform statewide fair and impartial policing policy to prevent local police from getting entangled in federal immigration operations.”

Under the law, the Vermont State Police, as well as all municipal and county law enforcement agencies, must adopt a new fair and impartial policing policy by March 1, 2018.

Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said the governor had hoped to hold a public signing ceremony but the timing of the bill’s arrival on his desk made organizing an event difficult.

“[L]ate Thursday afternoon the bill was unexpectedly delivered to the governor’s desk, which did not give us enough lead time for the governor’s legal counsel to review it for technical accuracy and organize an event that could be attended by the various supporters and stakeholders from across the state that worked within the governor’s scheduled commitments,” she wrote in an email. “While we weren’t able to sign it publicly, we’ve issued a press release announcing its passage, thanking supporters and sponsors, and highlighted it at today’s press conference.”

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