Home News Center Racial Justice Working Group Helps Members Put Anti-Racism into Action

Racial Justice Working Group Helps Members Put Anti-Racism into Action

December 16, 2019
Courtney M. McSwain


In 2016, NJJN created Racial Justice Working Group to put our commitment to anti-racist youth justice advocacy into tangible action. This year, the working group began its first in-depth project by looking at the effectiveness of legislative racial impact statements.  

Racial impact statements have been introduced in multiple states to weigh all of the potential consequences of a law on communities of color who are disproportionately represented within the criminal and youth justice systems. Four states - Iowa, Connecticut, Oregon and New Jersey - have adopted racial impact statements, with nine othercurrently debating whether or not to do so.  

“With increasing interest in using racial impact statements as a very concrete tool for achieving racial equity, we wanted to understand how they could really be effective,” said Jeree Thomas, Racial Justice Working Group member and alum of the Youth Justice Leadership Institute 

Because it had 10 years of data to look at, Iowa was chosen as a case study for examination, and students from the Clinical Law Program at the University of Iowa College of Law partnered with the working group to undertake the project. In 2008, Iowa became the first state to require the development of racial (or minority) impact statements on bills that affect parole, probation and prison populationsIowa’s minority impact statements include racial and ethnic minorities as well as women and people with disabilities. Student researchers delved into 400 minority impact statements included in Iowa bills over the last decade and looked at emerging trends and patterns for their effectiveness. They also interviewed Wayne Ford, the former Iowa state legislator who championed the use of minority impact statements, lobbyists in the state working on justice issues, and stakeholders like prosecutors, law enforcement and public defenders.  

For the student researchers, examining the state’s minority impact statements was an opportunity to see how reform takes place in a practical way, while also offering valuable answers that advocates can use to create concrete reform.  

“Being able to have an impact on the justice system for youth was a huge motivator for me while working on this project,” said Tristan Gahn, a University of Iowa undergraduate student working with the Clinical Law Program.  

“[When we started] there was a lack of information and research done on minority impact statements,” said Bryan Porter, a University of Iowa Clinical Law Student. “The earliest look was in 2011, and eight years later there’s been no update. Working on this project was a way to let people know what’s happening.”   

Anthony Dopp, also a University of Iowa Clinical Law Student, believes researching minority impact statements gave him the chance to draw attention to an important issue. “Working on this project taught me that when you’re looking into new areas of the law or legislative process, sometimes yours might be the only set of eyes on the issue  and your voice can be really important,” he said.  

Findings continue to be finalized, and the research will be presented to NJJN in 2020. Ultimately, members of the working group hope the research helps member organizations make informed decisions about pursuing racial impact statements in their states as well as provides a road map for their effective usage. 

 The research project on the effectiveness of racial impact statements provides NJJN members with an additional toolkit to strengthen their advocacy in ending all youth incarceration. Many NJJN members have achieved amazing juvenile justice reforms throughout the country; yet still a reality remains, the rates of incarceration for youth of color have not decreased and in some states the disparities are continuing to increase especially for girls of colors” said Nanyamka A. Shukura, Racial Justice Working Group Chair and alum of the Youth Justice Leadership Institute. 

Moving forward, the Racial Justice Working Group looks to continue exploring topics that will help NJJN members advance racial equity in their states. “I hope more members will join the Racial Justice Working Group and share their experience or insight on things that they’ve researched or worked on locally,” Thomas said. “Localities and states are incubators for some really interesting ideas, and the hope is that this working group will help spread some of those ideas throughout our network.” 

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