By Brooke Nelson, Arkansas Non-Profit News Network (ANNN)
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An amended version of a bill that would allow for racial impact assessments for certain criminal justice bills advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday on a 10-7 vote with three members not voting.
An earlier version of the bill failed to pass in the same committee on a voice vote Tuesday. That vote was expunged before lead sponsor Sen. Joyce Elliot (D-Little Rock) presented an amended version of Senate Bill 237. Elliott had tried to pass similar legislation in 2013 and 2015, both of which failed in the Senate.
Originally, SB 237 would have required a racial impact assessment on legislative proposals creating a new criminal justice law or making substantive changes to an existing one. Each racial impact statement would evaluate whether the proposed legislation unequally targets minority groups. The state Bureau of Legislative Research, along with the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law and faculty and students of the Hendrix College Arkansas Policy Program, would research and prepare the statements at no cost. A sponsor would have to express her reasons in writing should she continue with a bill deemed to have a disparate impact.
In its amended form, pursuing a racial impact statement would be an option for legislators, not a requirement. If a legislator decided to move forward with a bill that was determined to have an adverse racial impact, she would no longer be required to explain her reasons in writing.
When she presented the original bill to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Elliott said, “What this bill is designed to do is to try to help — not solve — the problem of disparities that we have of folks that are locked up in our incarceration system.”
Significant racial disparities exist in prisons and jails across the nation. In Arkansas, while black men make up 16 percent of the state population, they represent approximately 42 percent of those incarcerated, according to a 2016 report by the Arkansas Department of Correction.
“This bill is meant solely to give information before you vote,” Elliott said in an interview. “And I can’t ever imagine we would be against having information, knowing how big the problem is.”
SB 237’s sponsors made the amendments in light of the committee’s discussion when the initial proposal failed. During Tuesday’s debate, members expressed concerns that the bill put too much of a burden on legislators.
“To make the legislator go through these steps and identify in writing his reason for proceeding, I just think that’s too, too harsh,” Rep. John Maddox (R-Mena) said.
Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), sponsor of the bill, said in an interview, “It was clear it would not pass out of House Judiciary without this amendment. They were OK with gathering that information — you know, the general feeling was that the more informed a decision can be, the better — but they didn’t want the member to have to do anything more than that.”
Elliott does not believe the removal of the requirements will mitigate the impact of the bill.
“Everybody wants to solve this problem,” she said in an interview. “So I would think that people would [ask for a racial impact statement] because we want to be good lawmakers.”
The bill now goes to the House.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.