Preventing Unintentional Racial Impacts

By Terry Keleher Nov 26, 2008

Originally published by American Forum ILLINOIS EDITORIAL FORUM By Sen. Mattie Hunter and Rep. Arthur Turner Suppose you’re a white person who uses drugs. Now suppose you’re a black person who uses drugs. Think you run the same risk of being arrested and incarcerated? Think again: Recent reports highlight vast differences in the way blacks and whites are treated, despite similar rates of drug use. Fortunately, Illinois has just enacted a measure that lays the groundwork to help address this inequity. Using new data from 34 states, Human Rights Watch found that black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men. Illinois had the highest black drug offender admission rate and the second highest black to white ratio of prison admission rates for drug offenses. The Sentencing Project, which analyzed 43 of the nation’s largest cities from 1980 to 2003, found that the rate of drug arrests for blacks increased by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent among whites, despite similar rates of drug use. In Chicago, the disparity between black and white arrest rates more than doubled since 1980. Yet at the same time, this racial gap in drug arrests declined in Los Angeles and New York. The reports conclude that policies regarding the War on Drugs significantly contributed to these racial disparities. High rates of incarceration among people of color can indicate bias within the justice system, whether conscious or unintentional. For those incarcerated, the consequences for their families, communities and future job prospects can be devastating. Problems of racial inequality are deep and complex, but solutions exist. A new proactive tool that states are adopting to inform policymaking is a “racial impact assessment.” These assessments are much like environmental impact statements and fiscal impact notes. “Examining the racial impacts of public policies makes sense because many problems are predictable, and thus preventable,” says tkeleher, director of the Midwest Office of the Applied Research Center, a policy institute that focuses on race issues. In neighboring Iowa, where a year ago, its prisons and jails had the nation’s highest rate of racial disparity, state leaders have taken bold action. Earlier this year, they passed the Minority Impact Statement Bill, the first of its kind in the nation, which requires examination of the racial and ethnic impacts of all new sentencing laws prior to passage. This enables legislators to anticipate any unwarranted disparities and consider alternatives to accomplish goals without compromising public safety. Upon signing the bill, which garnered broad bipartisan support, Iowa Governor Chet Culver said, "Minority Impact Statements will serve as an essential tool for those in government — and the public — as we propose, develop, and debate policies for the future." Connecticut has since enacted a similar law. A related measure, recently approved by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law in October by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, creates a Commission to Study Disproportionate Justice Impact. The Commission will assess the nature and extent of the harm caused to minority communities through the application of Illinois drug and sentencing laws, then develop findings and offer recommendations for equitable policy change. “This measure can help legislators enact smarter drug laws that can reduce crime, increase opportunities for individuals, restore families and save tax dollars” says Melody Heaps, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, which serves people across Illinois in need of drug treatment and other rehabilitative services. For Illinois, explicitly exploring the racial impacts of public policies is an important step for eliminating institutional bias. For communities of color, it may prove to be a giant leap towards justice. Hunter is a State Senator (D-District 3). Turner is a State Representative (D-District 9).