It's a Start 

Laws of the Future Might Be Less Racist

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WHEN IOWA LEGISLATORS considered stepped-up penalties for those attempting to flee cops in 2010, they had fair warning.

"This bill will increase the number of minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics, sent to prison," read a document provided by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency. "They will remain in prison for a longer period compared to current law. For those sentenced to probation, they will serve a longer sentence..."

In Iowa, long a poster child for racial disparity, that sort of frank insight is potentially vital. African Americans make up 3 percent of the state, but accounted for more than 25 percent of its prison population in 2011.

Oregon’s no hero, either. Black people make up about 2 percent of citizens, but 9.3 percent of the prison population here. According to the Urban League of Portland, black Oregonians are six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. Hispanics are also overrepresented.

But while Iowa lawmakers have been able to count on that kind of report for years when making public safety decisions, Oregon lawmakers still cannot. Until, that is, right now.

On Tuesday, June 25, the Oregon Senate sent Governor John Kitzhaber a bill that lets legislators request the same type of "racial impact statements" Iowans have had access to since 2009.

"It will allow the legislature to go in eyes wide open," said State Senator Chip Shields, D-Portland, a chief sponsor who first introduced similar legislation in 2007 and has tried to win passage repeatedly since. "If we agree that minority overrepresentation is something to be concerned about, the first thing we should do is not make it worse."

Under Senate Bill 463, legislators can ask the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) to study how new laws might affect the make-up of Oregon's prison population, as well as who needs certain human services. The documents can apply to proposed legislation or state ballot measures.

The idea has seen widespread support over the years. In 2009, the Oregonian called racial impact statements "a relatively simple, straightforward policy that could help." This year the Urban League of Portland, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and Portland-based Center for Intercultural Organizing spoke up in favor.

And the legislation has shed opponents, as well. That's because it now requires the CJC to analyze how new laws might affect the make-up of crime victims also. Previously, the state's district attorneys had opposed racial impact statements. This year, they remained neutral.

"If you're going to study the ethnicity of one side of the equation, you should also look at the victims' side," says Doug Harcleroad, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

Racial impact statements are the brainchild of Marc Mauer, executive director of Washington, DC-based advocacy group the Sentencing Project. In 2007, Mauer published a report that led Iowa to enact legislation the next year. Connecticut has also passed a bill, and Minnesota adopted the impact statements as part of an internal policy. Arkansas has floated the idea.

"We know from far too many examples it's very easy to pass some harsh sentencing legislation without looking at its possible racial effects," says Mauer. "Then 20 years down the road we have this conversation of 'isn't it unfortunate it produced these outcomes?'"

Supporters are quick to admit impact statements aren't a panacea. They don't alter existing laws, and so won't reverse the trends that got Oregon into its current predicament. It's a start, says Shields, but there's a long way to go.

"If you look at some of the mandatory sentencing that we have in this state, it absolutely disproportionately affects people of color," he says. "We need to look back on what we've already done."

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