Should More States Require Racial Impact Statements for New Laws?

July 31, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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By Maggie Clark, staff writer for Stateline

Most states evaluate new legislation for how it might affect the economy or the environment, but what about measuring a law’s effect on minorities?

Earlier this month, Oregon became the third state to require racial impact statements for any changes to state criminal laws or sentencing codes. Any new criminal justice proposal must be evaluated if at least one member of each party requests a report. The report, produced by a sentencing commission or legislative analyst, must show how a proposed law could have consequences for sentencing, probation or parole policies affecting minorities disproportionately, and that information is shared with lawmakers before they vote on the bill.

Iowa and Connecticut require racial impact statements before lawmakers can vote on any new criminal laws, and Minnesota’s sentencing commission regularly drafts racial impact statements for new legislation.

Attention to racial bias in the criminal justice system has been growing. In May, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights  began a national review to determine if controversial self-defense laws, known as “stand your ground” laws, promote racial bias.

These laws are on the books in at least 21 states and gained national attention after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Martin was an unarmed black teenager killed by neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

More states are considering requiring minority impact statements in the wake of Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict and the recent Supreme Court decision ending the federal preclearance requirement for election law changes in states with a history of voter discrimination, said Wayne Ford, a former Iowa state representative. Sponsor of the nation’s first racial impact statement bill, which passed in Iowa in 2008, Ford is in talks with lawmakers from 29 states interested in adopting racial impact statements.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that minority impact legislation has national, historic implications in regard to enactment and expansion of ‘stand your ground’ legislation,” said Ford. “Its scope can be expanded to make legislators and the public aware of the potential effects of ‘voter suppression’ legislation, too.”

Lawmakers in Oregon were motivated to enact their legislation by reports of disproportionate numbers of minorities in the child welfare system and in state prison.

“These racial and ethnic disparities suggest that we are using state resources inefficiently and ineffectively,” Democratic Rep. Joseph Gallegos, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. He was referring to statistics showing that African Americans make up less than 2 percent of Oregon’s population, but 9 percent of the state’s prison population.

Similar statistics convinced Iowa to become the first state to adopt minority impact statements.  In a scathing report published in 2007, researchers from The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group which highlights racial disparities in the criminal justice system, found that Iowa had the nation’s highest racial disparity in prison populations:  African-Americans account for 24 percent of Iowa’s prison population, but only 2 percent of the state’s population.

Those numbers made Iowa lawmakers eager to act. “We did not want to be recognized as the nation’s leader in the incarceration of black men,” Ford said. Both chambers passed the minority impact statement bill nearly unanimously.

Racial impact statements aren’t a panacea, however. Even though Iowa has required them for more than four years, the state still has wide racial disparities in its justice system. The state has the worst racial disparity in the U.S. in marijuana arrests, according to an ACLU study. Blacks are more than eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though usage is about even, according to researchers.

Minnesota, which also uses racial impact statements although not required by law, ranked third behind Iowa in the ACLU report, with blacks more than seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Still, the statements are a helpful tool for lawmakers to evaluate outcomes of new legislation, said Nicole Porter, advocacy director at The Sentencing Project.
“We don’t claim that racial impact statements will resolve all disparities, but it will allow lawmakers to be intentional about the effects of the laws they enact,” Porter said.

Reprinted from Stateline. Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

Matthew Shepard and Trayvon Martin: Bigotry knows no boundaries

July 18, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

The nation is once again divided alone the fault line of race. In a perceived 2013 post-racial society, however, William Faulkner’s prophetic quote “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” of the last century have come back to haunt us in this century.

Faulkner’s quote haunts us because of the recent verdict of the George Zimmerman trial.

The story, as you well know by now, of how George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchmen of a Florida community, was acquitted of all charges—murder and manslaughter—related to Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s actions resulted in the fatal shooting of Martin, a 17-year unarmed black teenager. Martin was perceived to be a suspect because he was wearing the signature piece of clothing that some associate with violent young black males—a hoodie. And he was not only wearing it but also “walking while black” in a gated community.

With no one of African descent—male or female—serving on the jury the nation sadly, once again, has shown to be neither colorblind with an all-white jury nor post-racial with one. And the notion that an all-white female jury would render a fairer outcome than an all-white male jury assumes racial bias is gender-specific.

Just as racial bias isn’t gender-specific, it is also not race-specific. Zimmerman is of a mix ethnic descent (mother’s Peruvian, and father’s Jewish) who identifies as Hispanic.

The question, however, many are still asking even after the verdict is whether Zimmerman was motivated by racism because he, too, is a person of color; therefore, was Zimmerman racially profiling Trayvon?

Racial, gender, gender-expression, and the all the other biases float freely through society—landing on all. Just because you’re a person of color or a member of an oppressed group it doesn’t mean you don’t buy into stereotypes and racial and cultural attitudes. These themes inform our judgments and actions toward others as well as your own group. (Case in point: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)

As a matter-of-fact, the bombardment of stereotypes has proven to have both subtle and unintended consequences toward people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, class and religions, to name just a few. It’s not just regular people who succumb. Geraldo Rivera, a renowned Latino, stated that Trayvon wearing a hoodie was “as much responsible” for his death as Zimmerman’s pistol. Of course, Rivera later recanted.

A young man has become the symbol of the horrific result of such stereotyping, and is fast becoming the symbol for a movement. Just as Matthew Shepard’s death galvanized a nation, Trayvon Martin’s death is doing the same.

In 1998 both James Byrd Jr., and Matthew Shepard were victims of bias-motivated crimes. Byrd, an African American was murdered by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pick-up truck at his ankles and dragged along a three mile asphalt road until he was dismembered. Shepard was tortured, tethered to a fence and left to die because he was gay.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, was passed. The measure expanded the federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to just name a few.

With Florida’s Stand Your Ground permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes links gays and blacks together but that it’s the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family seeking justice.

 

Rev. Irene MonroeRev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim.
Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”

The views expressed are those of the author.

 

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