Racial Impact Bill In New Jersey Underscores National Justice Debate

Supporters see Gov. Christie’s record on criminal justice and addiction crisis as signs that he could approve the measure

When Rev. Charles Boyer asks his African-American parishioners at the Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, N.J., if they know someone in prison, a majority of hands go up.

Black neighborhoods in this blue-collar town and others across the country have been disproportionately scarred by the number of African-Americans serving long, mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses. In New Jersey, blacks make up 61% of the prison population but only 14% of the state’s residents, according to figures from the state legislature.

A bill that is now in the hands of Gov. Chris Christie would make New Jersey the fourth state in the country to require lawmakers to consider a “racial impact statement” before approving any criminal justice system legislation.

The movement toward racial impact statements is emerging as another front in the long-running debate on the intersection of race and criminal justice, a debate that has intensified in recent years partly due to a series of police shootings of black men that were captured on video.

Supporters of the bill like Rev. Boyer say the Republican governor’s signature would reinforce one of the strengths of his record—an innovative approach to criminal justice—at time when his poll ratings are among the worst of any governor in the nation and New Jersey is just getting past a recent budget impasse that shut the state government for three days. Opponents contend that sentencing laws should be written without consideration of race.

Mr. Christie has made combating the state’s drug addiction crisis a signature issue, backing laws that expand alternatives to prison for drug offenders, require insurers to cover six months of addiction treatment, and overhaul the state’s bail system so poor people aren’t unnecessarily behind bars. The governor was tapped by President Donald Trump this year to lead a national commission to combat opioid addiction.

“Gov. Christie sees himself as a forward thinker on criminal justice reform,” Rev. Boyer said. “I know he agrees that the war on drugs has been horrible for people of color and has a passion around solving the opioid crisis. This bill is an easy for win for him to say he’s on the side of justice.”

Opponents of racial impact statements, however, like Roger Clegg, president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, said they distract policy makers from what he says are the root causes of crime in minority communities, particularly higher rates of out-of-wedlock births.

“The whole idea of the civil-rights movement was to get government out of the business of taking race into account,” said Mr. Clegg, a former deputy assistant general in two Republican administrations. “Is government supposed to say, ‘We’re not going to pass this bill because it has a politically incorrect racial result even though it’s a necessary bill?’ ”

Mr. Christie hasn’t taken a public position on the racial impact bill, which faces a July 10 deadline for his signature or veto. A spokesman for the governor said he would review the legislation.

The bill received unanimous support in the state Senate and only three no votes in the Assembly, quietly marking the latest victory for the bipartisan movement in state capitols to revamp criminal justice policies. Grappling with costly and crowded prisons, both red and blue states are looking for alternative ways to rehabilitate offenders, particularly those who aren’t violent, without compromising public safety.

African-Americans in New Jersey are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of whites, making New Jersey’s racial disparity the worst in the country, according to an analysis of Justice Department data last year by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates reducing the prison population.

New Jersey also ranks at the top of the 16 states that have achieved double-digit rates of decline in their prison populations since reaching peak levels, the group says.

The federal government, however, is reversing its course of the past few years as the Trump administration ramps up prosecution of drug and immigration offenses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argues that charging drug offenders more aggressively will help restore the rule of law and curb increases in violent crime in some cities.

Critics accuse Mr. Sessions of reviving a fruitless “war on drugs,” with its significant financial and social costs. Mr. Christie hasn’t commented publicly on Mr. Sessions’ approach to criminal justice.

On average, African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of whites across the country, according to the Sentencing Project. Iowa was the first to require racial impact statements in 2008, followed by Connecticut and Oregon. Minnesota lawmakers also use racial impact statements, though they aren’t mandatory.

In Arkansas, where African-Americans make up 16% of the state’s residents but 43% of the prison population, a proposal to require racial impact statements for sentencing bills was voted down in March.

Bills requiring racial impact statements have also been considered in Florida, Mississippi and Wisconsin, according to criminal justice experts.

A study of the Iowa law by the Simpson College Urban Studies Institute found that racial impact statements didn’t appear to positively or negatively impact passage of 16 criminal justice bills between 2009 and 2013. But the researchers predicted that over the next 10 years, racial impact statements could help reduce disparities in incarceration rates.

Supporters cite, among other things, laws passed around the country in the 1980s and 1990s, without such racial impact recognition, that increased penalties for drug possession around schools, public housing projects and parks and had a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities.

A New Jersey sentencing commission in 2005 found that 96% of the inmates convicted of the harsher penalties under such laws were African-American or Hispanic because urban, minority neighborhoods were disproportionately blanketed by drug-free zones. New Jersey lawmakers eliminated mandatory minimum prison sentences for school-zone offenses in 2009.

“We cannot continue burying our head in the sand and pretend that our laws are being enforced in a way that is race-neutral just because they are written that way,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.

Noting that lawmakers often rely on environmental and fiscal impact statements, she added, “These impact statements only help us make more informed decisions.”

Another example of legislation later found to have far-reaching racial consequences were the tougher penalties for possession of crack than for powder cocaine. With the leadership of then-Sen. Sessions, federal lawmakers reduced the disparity between in 2010.

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