The need for racial impact statements
Arkansas needs the legislature to pass Senate Bill 1093, a bill requiring a racial impact statement for any legislation introduced that affects punishments for a crime. Why, some would ask? Well, we haven't finished the work that we started when we ended convict leasing that allowed the punishment system to target African American men. And we have an increasing number of immigrants who are getting caught up in Arkansas's criminal justice system.
Let's focus here on who we choose to incarcerate. Currently, 42 percent of those incarcerated within the Arkansas Department of Corrections are black men and 60 percent of those on death row are black men. Black men comprise less than 8 percent of the Arkansas population. Even absent any evidence of discrimination in treatment within the punishment system, these statistics cry out for our attention. However, there is evidence that this disparity is not due simply to the vestiges of racial targeting by the Arkansas criminal punishment system. A study produced in 2008 of the 8 and 8S judicial circuit (Lafayette, Miller, Nevada and Hempstead counties) revealed that in comparing white and black men who were charged with murder and had similar criminal histories and crimes, only black men were sentenced to death and only for the deaths of whites.
We want to encourage Arkansas legislators who are charged with representing the best interests of the state to take a lead in addressing these appalling statistics. Legislators should have the information on the impact of criminal punishment bills on racial and ethnic minorities in the state — giving them an opportunity to determine whether there is a way to achieve their purpose of protecting the best interests of the state in a manner that does not disproportionately affect these communities.
As you may know, requiring impact data before voting on legislation is not new to Arkansas. Fiscal impact statements are required for virtually all legislation and for many bills an environmental impact statement is required as well. I know we all agree that the lives of racial minorities, a category defined in Arkansas statutes to include racial and ethnic groups such as African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos, are no less important than the financial costs to the state.
UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, in his 2003 inaugural address, coined a phrase that Arkansas policy makers and residents need to adopt if we are committed to ending the racial and ethnic divides in Arkansas: "You have to face it to fix it." You can't face it without data; you cannot fix it without caring about the lives of all Arkansas residents: black, Native American, Latino and white.
Adjoa A. Aiyetoro
Director of the Racial Disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System Research Project
The people rule
In a whistle-stop tour in 1910, renowned populist reformer and orator William Jennings Bryan campaigned with Arkansas Gov. George Donaghey to enact the initiative and referendum process in the state of Arkansas. "I know of nothing that will do more than Initiative and Referenda to restore government to the hands of the people and keep it within their control," Bryan said.
The voters of Arkansas adopted this tool in 1910 and for almost 70 years, Arkansas remained the only Southern state with a statewide initiative and referendum process.
Now a serious threat to the Arkansas voters' ability to exercise our First Amendment right to petition through this initiative and referendum process looms on the horizon. For the last several weeks we have been following the progress of a restrictive bill known as SB 821.
SB 821 was introduced by Sen. Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis — coincidentally, the home of Southland Racetrack). This legislation, drafted by the attorneys for Oaklawn Park, appears to be an effort hatched by Oaklawn and Southland gaming establishments to attempt to protect their gaming monopolies by making legislation originating from the people of Arkansas next to impossible. Their plan is to attack the initiative and referendum process — a process that Arkansans have enjoyed for well over 100 years and one that is ensconced in the Arkansas Constitution — by making the logistics of the process so onerous that it would be next to impossible to comply. This is the same tactic that was used successfully to keep black Southerners from voting for approximately 100 years after the end of the Civil War in the Jim Crow South. Blacks technically had the right to vote, but restrictions placed upon the ability to exercise that right essentially nullified it. Their ostensible argument is that the initiative process has become so corrupt, including the assumption that Arkansas is in an immediate state of emergency, that draconian measures in SB 821 are needed to ensure "preservation of the public peace, health and safety" of the state.
Indeed, there were instances of fraud and duplication in the collection of petition signatures in 2012. David Couch compiled known fraudulent petitions and a listing of individuals that signed the petitions numerous times and in accordance with existing law took these petitions to the Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney. To our knowledge no action was taken. Before making new laws, perhaps it should be best to enforce the ones currently on the books. Also it should be noted that none of these measures were certified for the ballot, so the safeguards currently in place worked!
Please contact your state legislatures to vote NO to SB 821.
The initiative and referendum processes distinguished Arkansas from other Southern states during most of the 20th century in our citizens' belief that the people rule. We must remain ever vigilant at the outset of the 21st century that this intrinsic right is not ceded to special interests. The tools we have at our disposal are the ones that were used by William Jennings Bryan over a century ago: the public exchange of ideas and discourse in pursuit of an ideal — the ability of American citizens to direct their representatives to uphold government that is OF the people, BY the people and FOR the people.
Co-chair, Regnat Populus Ballot Question Committee