During a committee hearing last Thursday, Republicans in the Washington State Senate had a really hard time wrapping their heads around a proposal that would require the state to carry out racial impact statements on legislation when requested by lawmakers.
What's a racial impact statement? It's an assessment of whether something will affect all racial groups equally, or whether it will harm some groups more than others. (Like an environmental impact statement, except dealing with race.) For example, sentencing laws are much harsher on people dealing crack cocaine—more often people of color—than those dealing powder cocaine, even though the drugs are virtually identical. A racial impact statement on these laws would inform lawmakers of their disparate effects. (And, in an ideal world, would do this before the laws get voted upon.)
That's it. Nothing too confusing and scary, and nothing too unheard of, either—Oregon and a handful of other states are already using racial impact statements. But on Thursday, certain Republican lawmakers in Olympia seemed to have no idea what racial impact statements are. At the same time, they were strangely quick to assume what they might be. For example, Republican lawmakers worried the impact statements would give minorities a get-out-of-jail-free card or disregard "sociology books"—when, in fact, racial impact statements would make our laws even more data-driven they are now.
"I guess I don't understand," said Senator Barbara Bailey of Skagit County during the hearing, "why our laws that we already have don't already have the oversight of this particular situation that you're talking about. So are you indicating that we would then change our laws, that if you are someone of color and you commit a crime, that your sentence would be different than someone who is not of color?"
No, said Bob Cooper, from the Washington Defender Association, exhibiting the patience of a saint. "I'm suggesting you need to be aware of the potentially disparate impacts when you pass a piece of legislation." (There's video of the exchange, which begins at about the 50-minute mark, here.)
But Senator Jim Honeyford, who represents a majority Latino district in Eastern Yakima County, went even further. "It's generally accepted that the poor are more likely to commit crimes," he asserted. "And generally, I think, accepted that people of color are more likely poor than not. So how does that factor into your equation?"
That assertion is a kind of a 2015 retread of the scandalous 2010 comments that led to Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders being booted out of public office.
"I think that's a really good point," responded John Steiger, who heads the state's Caseload Forecast Council, which would be charged with preparing the impact studies for legislators. "I'd like to make the point that just because we can show that there's disproportionality, it doesn't necessarily mean anyone that's the result of anyone doing anything wrong. It may just be reflecting underlying base rates of behavior."
Senator Bob Hasegawa, a Democrat representing Beacon Hill, seemed offended by Honeyford's remarks. "It's probably true," he pointed out, "that there's more people of color in jails or facing prosecutions. But these types of analyses will help us get to the root of what is actually causing that kind of disparate treatment."
"I want to correct what I said," Honeyford shot back, doubling down: "I said the poor are more likely to commit crimes, and, uh, colored most likely to be poor. I didn't say anything else other that. And I believe that's an accepted fact, and if you check any of your sociology books or anything else you'll find that's an accepted fact of our society."
Hey, Honeyford. Here's the ACLU on the connection between poverty, race, and crime:
Indeed, for many, poverty is at the root of their involvement in the criminal justice system in the first place, as shown in the Vera report, a recent ACLU lawsuit in Georgia, and elsewhere. As a result, an inability to pay these fees and fines needlessly keeps poor defendants in jail—or sends them back—while their richer counterparts walk free because they can afford proper representation. Adding to these injustices, as with so many criminal justice, economic, and social policies, the myriad problems with our jail system disproportionately harm communities of color.
The bill is currently up for consideration by the Senate Rules Committee.