Colorblind No More

A growing number of states assess the racial impact of drug laws.

By Daisy Hernandez Apr 08, 2009

Legislation passed in Iowa and Connecticut will now require politicians in both states to consider how proposed drug laws may impact communities of color. Minnesota hasn’t passed a law, but its sentencing commission has already begun taking similar action.

The laws come after decades of research showing how the federal and state policies that made up the War on Drugs have disproportionately targeted Black people, sending them to prison at much higher rates than whites. In Iowa alone, Blacks are imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites.

The Sentencing Project, an organization promoting reforms in the criminal justice system, has been calling on lawmakers across the country to create racial impact statements. The concept is similar to how environmental impact statements work: When a bill is proposed, lawmakers are required to include an analysis of how the environment would be affected if the bill were passed. Racial impact statements will do the same, considering how a proposed sentencing law might cause, for example, an increase of Latino or Black men in prisons.

“The idea is to remind legislators that their decisions can irrationally and perhaps unintentionally affect racial disparity,” said Isabel Gomez, executive director of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. “We’re hoping it’ll get them to think.”

The changes in Iowa, Connecticut and Minnesota come less than a year after the U.S. Sentencing Commission shortened the average sentences for crack offenders from a five-year minimum to two to three years. The differences in sentencing for cocaine and crack (one gram of crack cocaine is treated as 100 grams of powdered cocaine) have fueled the racial disparities, according to advocates and researchers.

The momentum for a racial analysis is growing. Illinois has created a commission to study the racial impact of drug laws, and in Wisconsin, the governor created the Racial Disparities Oversight Commission to implement policy changes like having judges use community-based sentencing alternatives.

“There’s been growing recognition that racial disparities in the justice system have a ripple effect on the entire community,” noted Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

Even district attorneys are coming to new conclusions.
“Incarceration is not the answer,” District Attorney John Chisholm in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He announced that his county was getting close to having a drug treatment court, where judges work with addiction experts to treat drug offenders rather than imprison them.