Racial Impact Statements Fight Racial Injustice in Criminal Justice

Racial Impact Statements Fight Racial Injustice in Criminal Justice

Oklahoma and Nebraska are two states where racial injustice in the criminal justice system is growing more and more apparent. According to research from The Sentencing Project, Oklahoma incarcerates one out of every 42 Black residents in the state. In Nebraska, it’s one out of every 58 Black residents. These statistics put both states in a far worse position than the U.S. as a whole (one out of 81). But lawmakers from each state have identified a tool that they believe can fix this trend: racial impact statements.

Oklahoma and Nebraska lawmakers called on their colleagues to implement racial impact statements.

In an article for Governing, Oklahoma Senator George Young and Nebraska Senator Terrell McKinney identified as being able to “provide state legislators with a way to evaluate the impact of proposed legislation on sentencing and incarceration.” As they write, the two lawmakers “have championed racial impact statements for proposed legislation in Oklahoma and Nebraska and will work to reintroduce the legislation in future legislative sessions.”

The Sentencing Project describes racial impacts as “a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation.” Comparing them to fiscal impact statements, The Sentencing Project says that racial impact statements “assist legislators in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications.” The benefit of the racial impact statements is clear: “Policymakers may then be able to modify legislation that would worsen existing racial disparities.” In a practical sense, The Sentencing Project explains, “it is important to address a policy’s unwarranted effects before it is adopted, as it is more difficult to reverse sentencing policies once they have been implemented”—a problem we’re seeing with the First Step Act already (as we’ve explained here, here, here and elsewhere).

Image courtesy of DisobeyArt via iStock by Getty Images.

As Sens. Young and McKinney point out, “[n]ine states — Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia — have already implemented mechanisms for the preparation and consideration of racial impact statements.” Calling on their colleagues around the country to do the same, the lawmakers put the responsibility on lawmakers like themselves. “As policymakers, we must first accept that our system discriminates and then aggressively implement policies and practices that articulate measurable goals to counter discrimination in our criminal justice system,” they wrote. “Legislative leadership must take personal responsibility for fixing the problem.”

These lawmakers point to recent progress as a reason why now is the time to move forward.

For Sens. Young and McKinney, now is the time to act. First, as they point out, their states are already “beginning to see some progress[.]” For instance, in 2015, Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty. (Nebraska reinstated the death penalty the following year after a campaign by the state’s conservative governor.) In 2016, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a law that reclassified certain felonies and misdemeanors. “That’s encouraging,” they wrote, “but it’s just a start.”

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