By Lorentz Hansen, Copy Editor
Friday, January 31, Vermont Law School’s Black Students Association (BLSA) hosted its annual symposium, this year entitled “Race and the Law: Re-Imagining Criminal Justice in the 21st Century.” The all-day event included several panels and addresses featuring a diverse range of speakers from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, and public defenders.
BLSA hosted the event in conjunction with the Law School’s Center for Justice Reform, along with the Latin American & Caribbean Law Students Association and several student groups, furthering BLSA’s goal to make its annual symposium an intersectional discussion of legal issues. Each year, BLSA chooses a topic for the year’s symposium based on current events and trends in the areas of race and the law. This year, BLSA leadership wanted to highlight alternative approaches to criminal justice that are now emerging into the mainstream.
Ricardo Edwards, current 1L, recent graduate of VLS’s Masters in Restorative Justice program, and BLSA member, spoke about BLSA’s goals with this year’s symposium. “We wanted people to get a sense of where we are right now in the criminal justice sense, and to understand the ideas of progressive policies in criminal justice,” said Edwards.
The symposium began with a letter from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, brought by members of his congressional staff, who also participated in the symposium. The letter was followed by an address from Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan. Attorney General Donovan spoke about the emergence of trauma-informed systems in Vermont, and his focus on prioritizing respect for human dignity in his work.
The Attorney General’s address was followed by a panel on criminal justice reforms currently in motion in the Northeast, moderated by VLS professor Mark Latham. Eric Gonzalez, who is the current District Attorney for Kings County in Brooklyn, NY spoke about his work the Sex Crimes and Special Victims Bureau and the changes he has seen in approaches to criminal justice over his career. Myriam E. Feliz, Supervising Assistant District Attorney in the Chelsea District Court of Massachusetts, also joined the panel, along with civil rights and criminal defense lawyer Robert Appel. Additionally, Captain Garry Scott of the Vermont State Police spoke about his work as director of the Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs. Captain Scott discussed his efforts to implement sensitivity training with new police officers and the department’s efforts to address relationships between police officers and Vermonters, particularly people of color in Vermont.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe reached out to BLSA seeking to participate in this year’s symposium. Ashe spoke during the lunch break about the Vermont Senate’s work gathering data on policing in and how the Senate is working to confront implicit biases in policing and policy planning.
VLS Professor Robert Sand moderated a panel featuring individuals working across the field of civil rights in the United States. The panelists spoke about their work within the realm of restorative justice, civil rights, and law enforcement, and how they each saw the criminal justice system evolving in their respective fields.
Anton Robinson, a senior planner with the Vera Institute’s Greater Justice New York Initiative in New York City, spoke about Vera’s work with the Bail Assessment Project, a policy which went into effect on January 1 of this year and reduced the bail amounts judges could set in New York. Robinson began by invoking Kalief Browder, who was held at Rikers Island jail complex for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was unable to make bail. Browder spent two of those three years in solitary confinement, and subsequently died by suicide two years following his release.
“We should never step so far away from the names and faces of the people we do this for every day,” said Robinson.
Sia Henry, a senior program associate with Impact Justice’s National Prison Rape Elimination Act Resource Center, discussed her work in restorative justice initiatives in California. Willa Farrell, Court Diversion Director with the Vermont Attorney General’s office, spoke about her work to adjust courts’ approaches to cases, altering court interventions based on the risks in each particular case. Also featured on the panel was Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice for All, a grassroots organization pursuing racial justice through advocacy and education.
The afternoon’s keynote address was given by Tiffany Cabán, a career public defender and former candidate for district attorney in Queens, NY. Cabán spoke informally about her experience running for office, and how she worked to mobilize a grassroots campaign for district attorney based on progressive policies. Cabán discussed how her experiences as a public defender informed her 2019 campaign, which ultimately lost by a margin of 60 votes. She also spoke about the importance of symposiums like BLSA’s to educate people about new approaches to systemic legal issues and enable people to apply those new approaches in their communities.
All of the speakers this year represented a shift in the criminal justice system’s approach. “Each speaker is in their own way going against the traditional system of what justice means,” said Edwards. “It shows as an outsider, if we come together as people we can change the system, and that’s what the people on the panel are doing.”