By Shannon Wight, Partnership for Safety and Justice
Five years ago I moved back to my hometown, Portland, Oregon. I had lived in New Orleans for the better part of the previous 15 years. The differences between the two cultures are vast. New Orleans is an older city and its history vibrates from every French Quarter building, Cajun meal, Delta blues song, and easy conversation in grocery store lines or at trolley stops. New Orleans is a majority African-American city.
Portland is newer, still struggling to find its identity, but proud of its progressive politics, its commitment to the environment, and its food that is both delicious and good for you. Portland is 90% Caucasian.
Still, New Orleans, seated squarely within the Deep South, is considered one of the many bastions of overt racism in the region. (Indeed, before moving to New Orleans, I had several white people warn me against the move "because it's so racist there!")
Despite many visits to Portland, when I left New Orleans and returned home, I experienced some culture shock. Maybe I could have anticipated that. But what I didn't expect was how much harder it is for people—white people—in Oregon to talk about race and racism than it is for people in the South. In fact, hardly anyone even says the word racism in Oregon. (We say "bias" or, simply, "I didn't mean it that way.")
Given the extreme difficulty Oregonians have in talking about race and racism and the devastating impact that both racism and silence about racism have on our criminal justice polices, it was exciting to be part of passing a piece of legislation that is explicitly, and solely, about race and "bias."
This year Oregon became the fourth state in the country, following Iowa, Connecticut, and Minnesota, to enact racial impact statement legislation. The now-signed-into-law bill will allow two legislators to make a request to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to produce an estimate of whether or not a proposed law would disproportionately impact people of color.
This legislation makes sense to me for this reason: Every bill that goes through the legislature has to have a fiscal impact statement. These statements let us know if a bill is going to cost the state money, and if it will, experts estimate the approximate amount the state would need to spend to implement that law.
Similarly, racial impact statements will give legislators information about whether or not a specific piece of criminal justice or child welfare legislation will have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. We don't question the need to know if a bill is going to cost the state money. Shouldn't we also be willing to know if a law is (even unintentionally) biased?
Some people mistakenly believe that there is no bias in our legal system. People commit crimes, they are convicted, and the system simply reflects that reality. That just is not the case. One of the clearest examples of racial bias in our laws is the disparity in federal sentences for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Although they are essentially the same drug, African Americans are disproportionately arrested for and convicted of possessing crack and are sentenced to a term 18 times longer than someone convicted of having powder cocaine. (Notably, the ratio is now 18:1; it used to be 100:1.) In another example, some crimes have increased penalties if they are committed close to a school. Because people of color tend to live in cities, they also live closer to schools, and therefore if they commit a crime in their neighborhood they can be subjected to a longer sentence because of where they live.
Laws like these don't just impact individuals. When black and brown people serve longer sentences, their children, families, and communities suffer as well.
Some have wondered if racial impact statements are meant to lessen appropriate accountability for crime. Of course not. In fact, the opposite is true. Racial impact statements are designed to help make accountability fair and impartial. Data has demonstrated that we have a problem with bias in our systems; racial impact statements have the potential to help address entrenched racial disparities.
Passing this law was no small feat. After multiple attempts over more than five years, Senator Chip Shields finally succeeded during the 2013 legislative session in making racial impact statements part of Oregon law. During the first attempts the bill didn't even make it out of committee, the first step in passing a bill. This session, Senator Jackie Winters and Representative Joe Gallegos (two of a very small handful of legislators of color) joined Shields in sponsoring the bill. Over the intervening years, Senator Shields set up a working group that included numerous social justice organizations including the Urban League, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, the Partnership for Safety and Justice (my organization), and others, who continued their support over the years. Shields also won the backing of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (whose lack of support had been a barrier in the past) by getting them the information they needed to understand how to produce racial impact statements.
Will racial impact statements actually change the disproportionate and racist impact of criminal justice policies in Oregon? It’s hard to tell. What we do know is that Oregon policymakers will have to start talking about race when they consider policies that might tear families apart and create unnecessary costs for the state. While conversation isn’t enough, it’s only by exposing the racism of our system that we can begin dismantling it.
Prior to joining the Partnership for Safety and Justice, Shannon served as Policy Director for Innocence Project New Orleans Shannon worked for the public defender’s office in Portland, Oregon before moving to the Deep South in 1994 to investigate death penalty cases in Louisiana. In 1997, she co-founded the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.