New state commissions to examine racial disparities, criminal justice data and more

New state commissions to examine racial disparities, criminal justice data and more

Illinoisians are reading the tea leaves about how Gov. Pat Quinn will handle the Illinois General Assembly’s gambling expansion legislation–probably the biggest-ticket item to make it through the Springfield gauntlet during the last legislative session.

But while everyone waits to see how that shoe will drop, we wanted to highlight a few pieces of legislation the governor recently penned into law, including three that create new state research bodies charged with examining various racial and economic disparities in Illinois and coming up with recommendations for future action.

A fourth bill Quinn signed this month, meanwhile, begs a significant policy change about how the state prison system administers HIV tests.

First, though, let’s meet your new state commissions and task forces.

Senate Bill 2271 creates the Racial and Ethnic Impact Research Task Force. This group has a pretty specific goal: find “a practical method for the standardized collection and analysis of data on the racial and ethnic identity of arrestees by state and local law enforcement agencies,” according to the legislation.

The problems with criminal justice data across the state was highlighted earlier this year by the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study. That paper found “gaps in relevant data that would allow for a comprehensive statistical analysis of the impact of drug laws on disproportionality,” or why more minorities are arrested for drug-related offenses than white people. The study went on:

In some cases the data was simply not collected. In others, lack of standardized coding resulted in assumptions being made or sets of data disqualified from analysis. In others, data collected at different stages of justice involvement was not collected in a uniform manner, meaning data sets from different justice entities did not adequately integrate to afford a holistic view of the entire process.

The disproportionate impact study said better data collection would allow criminal justice system monitors to articulate practical steps to address the disproportionate impact of drug laws on minority communities, among other recommendations. Governor Quinn signed Senate Bill 2271 into law on August 16.

Senate Bill 2193 establishes the Commission on Environmental Justice. The commission will be made up of 20 voting members, 10 of whom will be appointed by the governor and culled from “affected communities concerned with environmental justice,” business groups, environmental groups and others who have studied environmental justice issues. The commission is meant to advise state agencies on a range of environmental justice challenges, from assessing current state and local laws to making recommendations to the governor and Illinois General Assembly about environmental challenges communities face.

“The aim of this council will be geared toward ensuring that a person’s income, age, race or nationality does not mean they must be relegated to living in an unsafe environment,” state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a press statement about the bill, which Quinn signed on August 16.

House Bill 1547 also creates a commission called the Commission to End the Disparities Facing the African-American Community. The 24-member group that will make up this commission has a broad task: “research the disparities facing African-Americans in the areas of healthcare, healthcare services, employment, education, criminal justice, housing, and other social and economic issues.” One public hearing will be held about the commission’s subject matter. The commission must come up with a report about its findings and recommendations by the end of 2013. This bill became law on August 15.

House Bill 1748 authorizes the Illinois Department of Corrections to treat HIV tests for inmates in the state prison system as an “opt out” test, meaning inmates would have to specifically refuse to take the test, an exact reverse of the department’s current testing policy. Opt-out testing, researchers told The Chicago Reporter earlier this summer, would likely boost the percentage of inmates screened.

Dr. Jeremy Young, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying HIV incident rates in the Illinois prison system, said earlier this summer that switching to opt-out testing in the state prison system could double the number of known inmates with the disease.

According to the corrections department, in the state’s fiscal year 2010, 28,500 inmates were offered an HIV test. Less than half agreed to take the test.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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