It seems almost fitting that House leaders bended the rules this week to consider a repeal of the Racial Justice Act that provides safeguards in the capital punishment system to make it less likely that race will play a role in deciding who is sentenced to death.
It fits with one of the prevailing themes of this General Assembly session, the deliberate assault on people of color and the poor. It is coming in many forms including restricting access to the civil justice system, making it more difficult to vote, denying low interest loans to community college students, setting up a separate and elite education system, and a budget that makes deep cuts to everything from preschool programs to services for people with a disability or mental illness.
No Republicans talk about it openly of course. It’s more subtle than that, or least they want it to be. But that’s not true in their efforts to repeal the Racial Justice Act. It’s there for all to see, from the name of the law they want to abolish to their absurd claims that race plays no role in the criminal justice system.
The General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009 in response to compelling evidence from several studies that proved the capital punishment system was infected by racial bias. It shows up in jury selection and the race of the victim. The odds of a defendant receiving the death penalty are significantly higher if the victim of the crime is white rather than a person of color.
That’s what the science and the numbers show. And those are the facts that House Majority Leader Paul Stam and other opponents of the Racial Justice Act don’t want to talk about.
They instead want to take away the right of people on trial for their lives to present evidence that race played a role in their case. It’s astonishing.
They also generally don’t mention that defendants who can prove racial bias or disparity receive a sentence of life in prison without parole. The Racial Justice Act doesn’t free anybody.
Stam and his supporters know that too, though that didn’t stop a Republican group from running ads in the last election accusing supporters of the Racial Justice Act of freeing death row inmates to move in next door.
The House committee considering the Racial Justice Act was scheduled to discuss a House bill Wednesday that would repeal it, but Stam presented an unrelated Senate bill instead, one he gutted and replaced with the provision for repealing the act.
That may not sound like a big deal, but it means that if the legislation passes the House, members of the Senate will have no opportunity to change it.
The committee debate featured a parade of district attorneys making questionable claims about the cost and the burden of the Racial Justice Act.
A fiscal note from the General Assembly staff showed that repealing it would not save any money and defense attorneys pointed out that prosecutors have rejected opportunities to streamline the process that allows defendants to present their evidence under the law.
The debate is not about the death penalty. And it’s not about letting anybody out of prison to move into your neighborhood. It is simply about fairness and justice and doing everything we can to make sure that race does not determine who lives and who dies in our criminal justice system.
It ought to be incomprehensible that anybody is against that. But sadly, it is not that hard to believe this year.