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In pilot program, Maryland lawmakers to give extra scrutiny to racial equity in criminal justice legislation



When Maryland lawmakers weigh bills on changing policing practices and reforming criminal justice, they’ll have extra information to consider on racial equity.

The General Assembly is starting a pilot program that will give lawmakers expert analysis on whether bills would result in disparate harm — or help — to different segments of the population.

Democratic leaders say this will be a help in efforts to dismantle structural racism — the laws, policies and standards that have an adverse impact on people of color and perpetuate advantages for white people.

“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,” House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said in a statement.

The nonpartisan analysts at the state Department of Legislative Services will generate the “racial impact statements” on bills, using data and assistance from Bowie State University and the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

The analysts already write comprehensive summaries for every bill introduced in the General Assembly, including explanations of how the proposals would work, how much they would cost and how they would affect local governments and small businesses.

Del. Jazz Lewis, who pushed for the racial equity analysis, said he hopes the effort can expand in future years to cover bills related to health care and education and then eventually all bills.

Lewis said in the past, policies were often put forward without regard to whether different segments of society would be affected more than others. As an example, he points to tougher sentences for crack cocaine possession than powder cocaine possession, which ultimately put people of color behind bars for longer periods than white defendants.

“During the crack cocaine epidemic and the period that followed, the state went too far on tough-on-crime penalties without a deep analysis of understanding the communities that would be impacted,” said Lewis, a Prince George’s County Democrat.

With more data and better understanding, lawmakers will have a chance to “mitigate” any disparate impacts.

Lewis said he was struck a couple years ago when participating in a debate about increasing minimum sentences that would primarily affect Black men younger than 35 — and realized “I was the only person in that demographic group in the room.”

After that, the 31-year-old delegate began pursuing ways to officially include racial equity in policy discussions. Lewis said he’s grateful the idea gained traction with Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, also Democrats.

It’s the latest effort by lawmakers to take visible steps for equity in their 2021 legislative session, which follows last summer’s demonstrations nationwide for racial justice and against police violence.

Jones is promoting what she’s calling a “Black Agenda” of bills, sponsored by various lawmakers. It includes legislation that would declare racism as a public health crisis, direct more money to an entrepreneurship fund to help minority-owned businesses and fund targeted health care programs in underserved communities.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Melony Griffith spent months leading a bipartisan work group that examined equity issues and developed a range of proposals, some of which are coming before lawmakers this year.

State legislatures in Connecticut, Iowa and New Jersey already use legislative analyses of racial equity on bills, while Florida, Minnesota and Oregon have arranged for outside reviews on certain bills, according to legislative leaders.

In Maryland, Montgomery County has included a “racial equity and social justice impact statement” in its legislation analysis since last year, an initiative led by Democratic Councilwoman Nancy Navarro.

Navarro said the information has proved valuable, particularly in discussing bills about school resource officers. Council members have reviewed data about arrests and discipline of students involving officers.

Navarro said the analyses work best when coupled with training for officials to understand structural racism, which was done in Montgomery under a sweeping bill she passed when she was council president. Training is paramount, she said, to “understanding the nuances and truths” of racial equity.

The Baltimore City Council passed a bill requiring similar racial equity analyses. But it failed at the end of then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s term in December when the Democrat neither signed nor vetoed the legislation.

New City Council President Nick Mosby, a Democrat, would be “very interested” in pursuing legislation to require an equity analysis on bills, according to his spokeswoman, Yvonne Wenger.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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