February 14, 2019 Blog

Charting a Better, Fairer Course: Racial Impact Statements a Must for Kentucky

By Senator Gerald Neal

Racial and ethnic disparities in America’s criminal justice system result in devastating consequences to society.

In Kentucky, only 10.2 percent of the overall population is African American, yet 21 percent of the prison population belongs to this minority community. Nationally, according to the MacArthur Foundation, youth of color constitute around one-third of the adolescent population in the U.S. but two-thirds of incarcerated youth.

Public policymakers are and should be increasingly concerned with the disparity between the number of minorities in the population and the number incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Understanding why this gap exists is critical to addressing the issue and implementing a racial impact statement requirement will help make that happen.

Going back to slavery and all the things that have happened in between, that influence actions and ideas like segregation, still manage to manifest themselves into institutional and structural racism; and quite often, it’s done in a way that we are not readily aware.

Racial impact statements are tools to guide policymakers to be proactive in assessing how proposed sentencing initiatives affect racial and ethnic disparities of adults and juveniles in the criminal justice system. Similar to fiscal and corrections impact statements, they provide legislators and agencies with a statistical analysis of the projected impact of policy changes before legislative decisions are discussed and adopted.

This is just one step forward in allowing Kentucky legislators to address the uncomfortable truth — that criminal justice policy decisions that appear to be neutral can yield disparate, unfair, and harmful outcomes. We must be more conscious of how the policies we provide play out for the people’s lives they affect.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, multiple explanations have emerged for racial disparities in the justice system ranging from jurisdictional issues, certain police practices and pervasive crime in some urban areas.  At least 15 states have recently enacted legislation to address the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system; Iowa, Connecticut, Oregon, and New Jersey specifically have implemented some form of a racial impact statement.

As the Democratic Representative for Senate District 33, I feel it is critical that racial impact statements be prepared for bills, resolutions, or amendments that may result in an increase or a decrease in adult and juvenile pretrial detention, sentencing, probation, or parole populations.

We all know that it is much easier to implement something before it is adopted than going back and reversing the decision. By providing elected officials with tools like racial and ethnic impact statements, voters can hold legislators accountable for decisions made.

Crafting good policy demands that we consider how decisions will play out on the ground and affect people’s lives. Racial impact statements build a critical check for systemic racism into the justice policy making process and can help chart a better, fairer course — if passed, Senate Bill 45 would do just that.

It is past time to meet this issue in this reasonable proposal, perhaps made better by broad discussion and input.