Bill would require racial impact statement on criminal justice bills

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock)

A bill filed in the Arkansas Senate would require racial impact assessments for certain criminal justice bills.

Senate Bill 237 would apply to proposals in the Senate and House of Representatives that would make substantive changes to laws related to Class A misdemeanors and felonies. Each racial impact statement would evaluate whether the proposed legislation would unequally target certain racial and ethnic groups or otherwise exacerbate the racial inequalities found in the criminal justice system. The state Office of Economic and Tax Policy, along with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and Hendrix College, would research and prepare the statements.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), lead sponsor of the bill, says she wants legislators to ask, “Will this bill have a disparate impact on minority groups?”

Significant racial disparities exist in prisons and jails across the nation. In Arkansas, while black men make up 16 percent of the state population, they comprise approximately 42 percent of those incarcerated, according to a 2016 report by the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Elliott said, “Rather than just accept that, I think it’s important for us to step back and say, wait a minute. Could we be a part of the problem? Because after all, we are the ones passing the laws.”

Elliott introduced similar legislation in both 2013 and 2015 session. The bills failed in the Senate both times. But Adjoa Aiyetoro, director of the Racial Disparities in Arkansas Criminal Justice System Research Project, a project of the UALR Bowen School of Law, says she is “cautiously optimistic” of the bill’s success this year.

This is “about creating a process that would give [legislators] more information to be the best of lawmakers” Aiyetoro said.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Iowa in 2007, which also requires analysts to assess the racial impact of criminal justice bills. Connecticut and Oregon also have laws that require racial impact statements.

Nicole Porter, director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., says the Arkansas proposal is the “strongest proposal that’s been introduced to date.”

Elliott worked closely with The Sentencing Project as well as the legislator who passed similar legislation in Iowa when drafting SB 237. She also hosted community forums around the state and studied the disparate impact on minorities that already existed in the criminal justice system.

Porter said, “If Arkansas lawmakers were to adopt Senate Bill 237 as introduced … . It would elevate Arkansas as a model in terms of being intentional about good policymaking and being intentional about addressing racial impacts as a result of policymaking.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.