LITTLE ROCK — A state senator says she plans to file legislation to require certain types of bills to be evaluated for their potential impact on minorities.
The Legislative Black Caucus on Monday heard testimony on the idea of requiring racial impact statements for some bills, not unlike the fiscal impact statements that now are required for certain types of bills that would impact the state’s coffers. A draft of a bill that Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she plans to file would require a racial impact statement for any bill that would create a new criminal offense; significantly change an existing offense or the penalty for an existing offense; or change existing sentencing, parole or probation procedures.
Under the draft proposal, if a racial impact statement shows that a bill would have a disparate impact on minorities, the sponsor would be required to amend the bill to lessen the impact on minorities, withdraw the bill or explain why he or she is proceeding with the bill without amending it.
Adjoa Aiyetoro, founding director of the Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, testified that 42 percent of state prison inmates in Arkansas are black males. Blacks make up 15.4 percent of the state’s population.
Aiyetoro said a law requiring racial impact statements would not prohibit any bills from being filed, but instead would say, "Let’s make sure, when we pass legislation that addresses crime and punishment, that in fact we are not passing legislation that has a disproportionate, negative impact on people of color."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., told the caucus that an example of a law that disproportionately affected blacks is a federal law passed in the 1980s that imposed sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine that were harsher than those for offenses involving powder cocaine.
Eighty percent of the people prosecuted under the law were black, a statistic that could have been predicted had anyone bothered to estimate the measure’s impact in advance, Mauer said.
"Finally after 24 years in 2010 a bipartisan majority in Congress voted to scale back the disparity significantly," he said. "It was a great victory. It should not have taken 24 years."
Iowa state Rep. Wayne Ford testified that he passed an Iowa law requiring racial impact statements, the first law of its kind in the nation.
"Of all the states that should not have these stats (on incarceration), you are one of those states," Ford said.
Elliott said she hoped people would not misrepresent the intent of her proposal.
"It is not to water down punishment, but it’s rather to get it right," she said.