Measure Aimed at Reducing Disparities Within Criminal Justice System
(TRENTON) - Legislation Assembly Democrats Benjie Wimberly, Troy Singleton, Jamel Holley, Cleopatra Tucker, Shavonda Sumter and Annette Quijano sponsored to encourage lawmakers to consider the impact proposed legislation would have on racial and ethnic minorities was approved by the full Senate, 34-0, on Thursday.
"The disparity between the number of minorities in the general population and the number of minorities in the prison population is a civil rights issue that warrants far more attention," said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). "In a state where black people are 15 percent of the general population but 60 percent of the prison population - a statistic largely due to a failed and misguided war on drugs - we have a responsibility to give closer scrutiny to how the policies the state enacts affect racial and ethnic minorities."
The measure (A-3677) would require bills and regulations affecting sentencing to include a racial and ethnic impact statement. Similar to fiscal impact statements that summarize how legislation may affect taxpayers and environmental impact statements that summarize how legislation may affect the environment, the racial and ethnic impact statements would outline how policies may affect the state's minority populations. The measure would require racial and ethnic impact statements to be prepared for bills, resolutions or amendments that may result in an increase or a decrease in the state's adult and juvenile pretrial detention, sentencing, probation or parole populations.
Criminal justice policies, while ostensibly neutral, often adversely affect minority communities, the sponsors noted. The legislation reflects their belief that it would be more judicious to consider the implications of policies in a racial and ethnic context prior to voting than to enact and then work to reverse laws that have a damaging effect on minorities.
"Given the numerous, lasting effects of mass incarceration - among them the psychological damage done to inmates, the daunting economic challenges they face thereafter due to being shut out of much of the legal economy and the overall splintering of families and communities - New Jersey must consider the long-term consequences of our approach to criminal sentencing," said Singleton (D-Burlington). "Requiring racial and ethnic impact statements would allow policymakers to proactively assess how proposed sentencing initiatives would affect racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system before legislative deliberation or rule adoption."
"Racial and ethnic bias - both implicit and explicit - has destroyed communities of color throughout history, and it continues to do so today," said Holley (D-Union). "In a country where we hold liberty paramount, New Jersey must be more conscientious as we take steps to reform a criminal justice system that perpetuates inequality and makes social mobility difficult for men and women who often already struggle to get by."
"If someone doesn't have personal experience or a constituent base that may be affected to inform his or her thoughts about legislation, that person may not even realize its potential to do harm," said Tucker (D-Essex). "A racial and ethnic impact statement can offer some perspective regarding how a bill that sounds good in theory may do damage in practice."
"Part of the process of reforming the criminal justice system overall is first acknowledging the injustices that exist and then taking active steps toward fairness," said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). "Racial and ethnic impact statements will allow lawmakers in New Jersey to make more informed decisions about legislation."
"Certain statutes, like the Rockefeller drug laws, for example, have had multi-generational detrimental effects on communities of color. To avoid repeating these negative outcomes, public policy formation must include assessments of legislation's potential racial and ethnic impact," said Quijano (D-Union). "Just like lawmakers discuss the potential fiscal or environmental impact of a bill, they also ought to evaluate measures through a social justice lens."
Under the legislation, the Legislative Services Commission would direct the Office of Legislative Services to prepare a racial and ethnic impact statement for each proposed criminal justice bill, resolution or amendment that would affect adult and juvenile pretrial detention, sentencing, probation or parole policies prior to any vote being taken in either house of the legislature.
The measure also would require state agencies to issue a racial and ethnic impact statement when proposing a rule for adoption. During the public comment period on the proposed rule, the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission shall review the rule proposal to determine its impact on adult and juvenile pretrial detention, sentencing, probation or parole policies and how the rule would affect racial and ethnic minorities. If the commission determines that the proposed rule may have a significant adverse impact on racial and ethnic minorities and notifies the relevant agency of that determination during the public comment period, the agency shall consult with the commission prior to adoption of the rule.
The measure gained approval 66-3-5 in the Assembly on March 17. It now heads to the Governor for further consideration.