Shining Light on Prisons

Shields say lockup measures should address race

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2009 issues of the Portland Observer.

Jake Thomas

The Portland Observer

For decades, Oregon’s small minority population has made up a disproportionate amount of the state prison population, which hasn’t gotten much attention when tougher sentencing laws are enacted.
African Americans make up nearly 10 percent of the state’s prison population, even though they are about 2 percent of the population. Hispanics make up over 12 percent of state prisoners, out of a population of about 10 percent.
State Rep. Chip Shields, D-Portland, is hoping to bring greater attention to the disparities, and make the public and other lawmakers think twice before enacting future measures that seek to crack down on crime.
Shields has introduced House Bill 2352, which requires the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to issue a racial and ethnic impact statement of any change in sentencing policy put before voters or the Legislature.
He is hoping that the statements will make lawmakers and the public more informed on some of the negative impacts tougher sentencing laws bring to ethnic communities and consider alternatives, like increasing funding for treatment and social services.

“We’ll go in with open eyes,” said Shields.

A racial and ethnic impact statement would be similar to an environmental or fiscal impact statement. Analysts would look at the current numbers of inmates imprisoned for crimes targeted by a new sentencing policy, and then make an estimate on how they’ll be affected.

Shields said the bill has not been analyzed for how much it will cost.

At least four other states- Iowa Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin- have something similar.

Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project- a non-profit working to reform the nation’s sentencing policies that collaborated with Shields on the bill- said that states already look at the fiscal or environmental impact of a policy, and should begin to look at how sentencing policy will affect race. He also said that it may spur the legislature to look at alternatives to incarceration.

“It represents a very rational criminal justice policy,” he said.

The “get tough on crime” approach adopted by voters over the last decade has only exacerbated the problem.

The most recent revision to Oregon’s sentencing policy was Measure 57, which voters passed last year. It mandated treatment for some drug offenses and prison terms for other crimes.

In 1994, voters passed the controversial Measure 11, which prevented judges from imposing more lenient sentences on defendants, and mandated hefty jail terms for many violent crimes, with no time off for good behavior.

According to statistics from the Oregon Department of Corrections nearly 18 percent of people prosecuted under Measure 11 have been African American, even though the group makes up about 2 percent of the state’s total population. For Hispanics, that number is over 21 percent, even though the group makes up about 10 percent of Oregon’s population.

Mauer explained that long sentences tend to affect low-income communities of color most acutely. They rip families apart and remove individuals from society for long stretches of time, making it more difficult for them to reconnect once out of jail, he said.

Alfred Blumstein, the J. Erik Jonsson University Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University, said that the proposed measure could sensitize legislators to the disproportionally of sentencing policy. In particular, it could bring attention to how certain sentencing policies have a greater impact on some ethnic groups.

For example, he cited national laws that impose harsher sentences for possessing crack cocaine (a drug used more by African Americans) and more lenient ones for cocaine possession (a drug used more by whites).

Shields said his bill is still being considered by the House Rules committee. He gives the bill a 50 percent chance of becoming law.

But not so fast, says Kevin Neely, representative for Oregon District Attorneys Association.

Neely said that the association is fine with the bill if it also includes a statement looking at what ethnic communities are impacted by crime, since studies show minorities are disproportionately victims of crime.

He hopes impact statements in both cases will spur a discussion about the best use of resources.

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About jakethomasreports

Jake Thomas is the web editor and news reporter at the Portland Observer. His freelance work has been published in In These Times, Utne Magazine, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, and others.
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