Time for Racial Impact Statements in Wisconsin?

As reported in the new issue of Sentencing Times, Iowa and Connecticut adopted new laws earlier this year that call for the preparation of racial impact statements as sentencing bills are working their way through the state legislative process.  In many states, it is already required that fiscal and environmental impact statements be prepared for new legislative proposals, but Iowa and Connecticut are the first to adopt a similar policy with respect to racial concerns.  This seems like a good idea for other states to consider–particularly states like Wisconsin with glaring racial disparities in their prison populations.  Of course, the fact that a sentencing proposal might exacerbate racial disparities would not (and should not) necessarily preclude its adoption, but the debate over such proposals would benefit from more self-conscious and well-informed attention to their racial impacts.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Jonathan Watson

    I am curious as to why you think this is a good idea for states to consider?

    –Jonathan Watson

  2. Michael M. O'Hear

    I think it is potentially a good idea because (1) more information about the effect of a legislative proposal–any type of effect–is better than less information, (2) the requirement of a racial impact statement serves as a reminder to the legislature that a sentencing law can affect different racial groups differently and that unwarranted racial disparities should be avoided, and (3) such a requirement also signals to minority communities that the legislature is aware of their concerns regarding racial disparities, which may help to strengthen their sense of trust in the fairness of the criminal justice system–a sense of trust that may in turn contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of law enforcement efforts in minority communities. Of course, I say “consider” advisedly–consideration may appropriately include waiting to see how well the Iowa and Connecticut laws work.

  3. Richard M. Esenberg

    I think that, as is so often is the case, the devil is in the details. My concern is that we don’t do a very good job of talking about race in this country and disparity studies tend to become a political football. It is extremely difficult to tease out race as an potentially significant independent variable because it is so highly correlated with other potentially relevant independent variables.

    Having said that, I tend to agree with Michael that information is a good thing. My hope is that such statements would not become the responsibility of those committed to a particular view of these matters. Given the political potency of this type of study (a potency which stems, in part, from our shared belief that racial discimination is a bad thing) and the less frequently remarked upon racial disparity in victimization, I would hope that the politics would not get ahead of the social science either in the preparation of such statements or in the selection of those responsible for preparing them.

  4. Brian Borkowicz

    I agree with both Dean O’Hear and Professor Esenberg — it’s important to learn what the racial impact of sentencing legislation will be, but it’s also important that those who determine that impact do so impartially. However, as Dean O’Hear implied in his response, we should be concerned with more than just the racial impact. If we’re going to commission a study on the impact of all sentencing bills, shouldn’t we study the entire impact rather than just the racial impact? Unwarranted racial disparities may be the most common (and perhaps the most egregious) unintended result of sentencing legislation, but there are certainly others. By studying the overall effect of legislation we could identify and hopefully neutralize not only unwarranted racial disparities, but all unintended consequences of the legislation. A committee that is studying a wide variety of effects would presumably be less likely to exhibit bias on any one particular issue, which may also alleviate some of Professor Esenberg’s concerns.

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