New Jersey Requires Racial-Impact Statements For Crime-Law Changes

Changes to criminal-justice laws in New Jersey now require an analysis of their impact on racial and ethnic minorities, making the state among only a handful in the nation to do so.

A bill mandating the analyses, which outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed Monday, requires the state’s Office of Legislative Services to prepare so-called racial-impact statements for policy changes that affect pretrial detention, sentencing and parole.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who was sworn in Tuesday, has said he is interested in legalizing marijuana and looking at ending mandatory minimum sentences. Under the new law, such changes would require the new impact statements.

The legislation notes that criminal-justice policies, “while neutral on their face, often adversely affect minority communities.” It says these consequences could be better addressed before changes because once laws are made it is difficult to reverse them.

New Jersey has the largest disparity between white and black incarceration rates in the country, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates reducing the prison population.

The state’s prison population is 61% black, 22% white and 16% Hispanic, data show. The state’s general population is 14% black, 69% white and 18% Hispanic, according to census data.

Iowa, Connecticut and Oregon require racial-impact statements, said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project. While such analyses aren’t binding, they do impact policy-making, Ms. Porter said.

In Iowa, lawmakers decided not to pass legislation that would increase penalties for cocaine offenses after a racial-impact statement showed the policy would disproportionately affect blacks, she said. Also in Iowa, a racial-impact statement found additional prison penalties for gun crimes would disproportionately affect blacks but lawmakers chose to adopt the measure, she said.

Proponents of racial-impact statements say they provide information to lawmakers that can help make the criminal-justice system fairer. “This will help New Jersey make smarter, more informed decisions and address our atrocious racial disparities so we can actually create a system that is fair and has the aim of tackling and ending mass incarceration,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel at American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Critics say lawmakers shouldn’t take race into account. Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, pointed to Justice Department statistics that show blacks committed homicides at a rate almost eight times that of whites from 1980 to 2008. Blacks were also disproportionately likely to be victims of homicides. “Given the elevated rates of both black victimization and black crime commission, racially neutral criminal justice practices and laws will inevitably have disparate impact on blacks,” she said.

Ms. Houenou, of the ACLU, said such statistics can be affected by discrimination in policing and who is being convicted and tried of offenses.

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