House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore County) announced Monday that they plan to initiate a pilot program to include racial impact statements in the legislative analysis of criminal justice bills.
“There is finally a broader understanding across Maryland and the country of the existence of structural racism – but we have to have better and deeper information in order to reverse its impact,” Jones said in a statement. “I am pleased that the Maryland General Assembly is leading in this area and I’m hopeful that it will lead to better decision making and policy decisions in the coming years.”
The General Assembly will work with Bowie State University and the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center during the 2021 legislative session to compile nonpartisan racial impact statements for major criminal justice bills that will move through the chambers. The analyses will be made available to lawmakers and members of the public for review during policy debates.
Maryland joins Connecticut, New Jersey and Iowa as the only states to run this type of program. Florida, Minnesota and Oregon have conducted similar reviews on certain bills.
According to a news release, Jones and Ferguson worked with Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s) to stand up the program. In a statement, Jones thanked Lewis for his “tireless effort over the last several years to make this happen.”
In 2019, Lewis sponsored legislation to require the Department of Legislative Services to work with the University of Maryland Lab for Applied Social Science Research to prepare racial impact statements on bills that would establish new or alter existing misdemeanor and felony offenses. It would have also required these analyses on bills that adjusted the penalties for crimes or changed sentencing, parole or probation protocol.
Lewis’ bill was heard in the Executive Rules and Nominations Committee but never made it to the House floor.
“I am elated Speaker Jones and Senate President Ferguson have worked with me to ensure that we can review our criminal justice-related legislation from a racial equity lens,” said Lewis. “Racial impact statements recognize that our criminal justice system has disproportionally affected low-income and minority communities and will provide the legislature with a clearer picture of the cost of sentencing, parole, probation, and penalty charges.”
Maryland lawmakers are reckoning with the aftermath of 2020, which brought not only the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but months of civil unrest following several high-profile killings of Black individuals at the hands of police. And as they move into the thick of the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers are looking to eradicate the disparities in health care, socioeconomics and criminal justice that were laid bare last year.
“Undoing issues of systemic inequity requires us to develop intentional strategies for measuring and combating disparate impacts,” said Ferguson. “This is an important step forward, and it will provide a more holistic picture of the effect of legislation proposed and debated by the General Assembly.”
“Communities of color deserve our best effort to ensure fairness in the legislative process.”