New Efforts to Address Racism in the Criminal Justice System

By Terry Keleher Jul 31, 2008

Earlier this year, Iowa and Connecticut enacted promising laws requiring the preparation of racial impact statements when state legislators are considering new sentencing legislation. Just as environmental impact statements and fiscal assessments are often used to inform policy decisions, racial impact statements can help lawmakers foresee and prevent unanticipated disparities prior to the enactment of state legislation. Now there’s some movement at the federal level to help law enforcement officials and policymakers become more conscious of institutional racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The Justice Integrity Act (S 3245) was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, co-sponsored by Sen. Biden (D-DE), Sen. Specter (R-PA), and others. The bill would provide a mechanism to establish pilot programs to evaluate issues of racial fairness in the practices of U.S. Attorney offices. Mark Maur, executive director of the Sentencing Project has an op-ed in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun, in which he explains how the legislation would work:

Suppose that federal data indicate that African-Americans represent 40 percent of the people incarcerated for robbery, considerably higher than their 12 percent share of the overall population. But if African-Americans are also 40 percent of those arrested for robbery, the sentencing process is not necessarily introducing any bias into the process, and we may need to look at socioeconomic variables to understand where these rates of imprisonment come from.

Conversely, if African-Americans represent 40 percent of the people arrested for a drug offense, a figure considerably higher than the proportion of drug users or sellers who are black, there may be some conscious or unconscious bias involved in policing or prosecution that creates these unwarranted disparities.

The new legislation would establish pilot programs in 10 federal districts to create local advisory groups charged with collecting and analyzing racial and ethnic data on charging, plea negotiations, sentencing recommendations and other factors. By bringing together criminal justice and community leadership, the process would provide the opportunity to enhance the fairness and the perception of fairness within the justice system