Sen. Joyce Elliott’s latest attempt to require racial impact statements on criminal justice bills failed to advance in the House Judiciary Committee today on a voice vote. Elliott unsuccessfully tried to pass similar legislation in 2013 and 2015.
The bill would have required bills that would create new criminal justice law or would make a substantive change to an existing one to be accompanied by a racial impact statement that explained whether the proposal would have a disparate impact on a minority group. The Bureau of Legislative Research, the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and faculty and students of the Hendrix College Arkansas Policy Program would have prepared the statements at no cost. If a legislator decided to move forward with a bill that was deemed to have an adverse racial impact, she would have to explain her reasons in writing.
Elliott pointed to the fact that African Americans make up 16 percent of the state’s population and 43 percent of the prison population.
“What this says to me is No. 1, there is a huge disparity. No. 2, I don’t think anybody is doing this on purpose. No. 3, either this has to be OK with us to have this disparity, or No. 4, we can talk about this in terms of this bill because we’re not OK with it and we want to do something about it.”
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) spoke for the bill, noting the history of sentence disparities in the federal system between crack and powder cocaine. He said more information was always a good thing for a legislator.
House Speaker Jeremy Gilliam (R-Judsonia) seemed incredulous as to the need of the bill. “I’m operating under the principle that crime is crime.”
Rep. John Maddox (R-Mena) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) both said the bill required to much of legislators. Maddox also said that most laws the legislature would pass would inherently have a racial impact.
“I think, for certain reasons, sociological, etc., most criminal laws we’re going to try pass are going to have a disparate impact, I really believe that,” he said.