In reaction to a study that found Iowa topped the nation in racial disparity in its prison population, Iowa Governor Chet Culver in April 2008 made history by signing into law the nation’s first piece of legislation to require policy makers to prepare racial impact statements for proposed legislation that affects sentencing, probation, or parole policies. In signing the bill, Gov. Culver noted that “I am committed to making sure government at all levels reflects our shared values of fairness and justice.” In the following months Connecticut and Wisconsin took similar action.
These policy initiatives come at a moment when the scale of racial disparity within the criminal justice system is truly staggering. One of every nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated in prison or jail, and one of every three black males born today can expect to do time in state or federal prison if current trends continue. For Hispanic males, the lifetime odds of imprisonment are one in six. Rates for women are lower overall, but the racial/ethnic disparities are similar.
Reducing minority rates of confinement is a complex process. These outcomes result from a complex set of factors, including socioeconomic disadvantages, involvement in criminal behavior, resource allocation in the criminal justice system, sentencing policies, limited diversionary options, and biased decision making among practitioners. We can debate the relative contribution of each of these factors, but there are few who would dispute that each plays at least some role.
The premise behind racial impact statements is that policies often have unintended consequences that would be best addressed prior to adoption of new initiatives. In this sense they are similar to fiscal and environmental impact statements. Policymakers contemplating new construction projects or social initiatives routinely conduct such assessments, which are now widely viewed as responsible mechanisms of government.
In this article published in the American Bar Association magazine, Criminal Justice, The Sentencing Project’s Executive Director Marc Mauer gives an overview of racial impact statements and makes the case for their adoption across the nation.
To read the article, download the PDF below.