Black Lives Matter, Pandemic Inequalities Lead to Racial Impact Laws

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More states are trying to assess the racial impact of the new laws, as the consciousness of many lawmakers has been awakened by the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on people. minorities.

In many states, lawmakers have a long history of using tax impact statements to predict how much money proposed laws will cost or save. Now, more and more lawmakers want to use racial impact statements to predict how a particular measure might harm or help racial and ethnic groups or worsen racial disparities.

Maine, Maryland and Virginia approved the use of such statements this year. About a dozen other states have similar legislation pending.

The idea of ​​assessing the racial effects of proposed laws is not new: Iowa began using racial impact statements for criminal justice bills in 2008, and nine other states have implemented them. to a small slice of criminal justice-related measures in the years since, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that campaigns against mass incarceration.

The difference now is the urgency created by recent events and the idea that racial impact statements could be attached to bills dealing with health, education or other subjects, and not just criminal justice.

Critics say racial impact statements are unnecessary because legislative committees, and sometimes government agencies, are already reviewing bills to assess their likely effects. Some conservative opponents go further, arguing that race-based decision-making is unconstitutional.

Racial impact statements are discriminatory, said Hans von Spakovsky, a former lawyer in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice and now a senior researcher at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

“When state legislatures pass a law, they should be concerned about the impact on all of their citizens, regardless of race,” he said in an interview. “To single out a group of citizens and ignore everyone is discriminatory and a very bad idea. It is unfair to citizens for lawmakers to care about the impact on a single, racially defined group.

But supporters, undeterred by such arguments, are pushing to expand the use of racial impact statements beyond criminal justice issues.

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The Maine law, signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in March, calls for a study to determine what policy areas might benefit from the use of such statements, “including, but not limited to, education; health care; employment, including wages; housing, including home ownership; and criminal justice and public safety.

The Maine bill’s sponsor, Deputy House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, a Democrat representing Portland, is one of only three black lawmakers in Maine.

“I have intentionally drafted this bill to incorporate as many elements as possible of social harm to health,” she said in a telephone interview. “You have to understand these historical elements to capture a lived experience that is generally described as disparate: education, wealth and wages, and access to health care. “

Talbot Ross, a ninth generation Mainer, said she came to the legislature five years ago with this type of legislation in mind. Recent events have given momentum to the bill, she said. The legislator has widely approved it.

But State Representative Bradlee Farrin, one of the few Republicans who voted against the bill, said in an interview that lawmakers can assess the racial effects of a bill without a formal impact statement. .

“I believe that the verification process, the public hearings, as well as the resources available to us as legislators through the attorney general’s office [are sufficient]”Said Farrin.” We already have processes in place to discuss these issues if there is a real impact on the bill. This is another layer that we don’t need.

In Maryland, legislative leaders earlier this year launched a pilot program to provide lawmakers with racial impact assessments of criminal justice bills, which will be conducted by non-partisan analysts from the Legislative Services Department. state with assistance from Bowie State University and the Schaefer Center for University of Baltimore. Public policy.

The program is already in use: A racial impact statement attached to a bill that would increase penalties for gun theft noted the disproportionate number of blacks who are arrested, charged and jailed in Maryland for crimes with gun, and claimed that the guns bill could worsen the disparities.

“While there is insufficient data to assess the precise racial impact of House Bill 633, the provisions of this bill are likely to amplify documented racial inequalities and exacerbate current rates of disproportion. racial and disparity ratios in Maryland, ”says the assessment. The bill died in committee.

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Although the Maryland program only applies to criminal justice bills, the State Del. Jazz Lewis, a Democrat from the Washington, DC suburbs who defended the statements, said he “would love to see it extended to other areas,” such as education.

“It would help us tackle the systemic inequalities that we see, like the pipeline from school to prison. When you suspend or deport youth in grade three, it increases the likelihood that they will end up in the criminal justice system, ”Lewis said.

“Policies have consequences,” he added. “By not revising policies for their impact on racial minorities, you run the risk of suffering major harm. “

Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, said the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed gave new urgency to the racial impact statements campaign.

“In states that have adopted the racial impact [statements] in 2021, George Floyd had an impact on that, ”Porter said. “Certainly in Maine, Maryland and Virginia the conversations that took place in 2020 have had an impact on that.”

That a state like Maine, with a population of 94% white, even considering requiring racial impact declarations for such a wide range of bills is an indication of how the attitudes of lawmakers have changed. .

Porter said she was not surprised by Maine’s move, noting that many Somali immigrants have recently settled in some of the state’s former industrial towns, such as Lewiston.

“It’s not that Maine doesn’t have to deal with issues of racial disparity and racial justice,” Porter said, also noting the state’s Native American community.

But attaching a racial impact statement to a bill does not guarantee that lawmakers will heed its findings. A 2015 Associated Press analysis of the Iowa law found that in some cases bills that were intended to exacerbate racial disparities were still passed.

The PA’s review of 61 racial impact statements issued since 2009 found that six of the 26 bills containing statements predicting disparate racial impact had become law. However, bills deemed to have no or mitigating effect on minority incarceration rates were almost twice as likely to pass, the AP reported.

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Former Iowa State Representative Francis “Chip” Baltimore, a Republican who served eight years ending in 2018, said he did not find the racial impact statements particularly helpful.

“I was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for five years,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think the challenge is to get useful data that is actually predictive of the potential impact. ”

He said that because Iowa’s prison population is disproportionately black, racial analyzes of a criminal justice bill “would come back saying it would have a disproportionate impact on minorities, but all that he did was to extrapolate the current prison population “.

A report on Iowa law released last year by the National Juvenile Justice Network, a nonprofit that focuses on racial disparities in juvenile incarceration, found that because the statements were coming often late in the process, lawyers and lobbyists did not have enough time to use information.

The group also said the enthusiasm and effort put into racial impact statements in Iowa had waned in recent years, resulting in fewer requests for reviews.

Tracey Tucker, who oversees the Youth Justice Leadership Institute of the group, noted that Iowa law requires a legislator to request the assessment, and said that request often comes after legislation has gone through the process of committee. “If it happens early enough, if there is documented data… it could be a tool for community advocates to use,” she said.

Tucker said part of the problem is that there is no longer a legislative champion for the Iowa law. Former Iowa state representative Wayne Ford, the measure’s Democratic sponsor and one of the state’s few black lawmakers when it passed, retired in 2011.

“Since my retirement, no one will take care of my animal project,” Ford said in a telephone interview with Stateline. Ford noted that when his bill became law, Democrats controlled the state government and now Republicans do, which means the political atmosphere isn’t as hospitable for it.

But, he said, the enthusiasm in other states, based on the events, gives him hope. “George Floyd has a lot to do with it,” he said. “We have things starting over again. “

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