Racial Impact Bill in New Jersey Underscores National Justice Debate

Beth Reinhard and Kate King, Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2017

Governor Chris Christie

Governor Chris Christie (Credit Image: © Chris Szagola/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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