« Ending Mass Criminalization

Policy 5: Racial Impact Tool for all criminal justice legislation

Many policies in this country unfairly disadvantage people of color and result in large swaths of Black and Brown communities being harassed, arrested, and shipped off to prison. While we no longer have laws that explicitly target or discriminate against Black and Brown people, many laws which seem neutral have negative effects on Black and Brown communities. Each new law and policy can compound the problem of racism in our criminal justice system and harm communities of color. Too often, elected officials and policy makers make decisions that end up having severe negative consequences for Black and Brown communities.


The only way to end the systemic racism that has existed for generations is to stop passing laws and regulations that unfairly impact Black and Brown communities. In order to ensure racial equity, policy makers and government officials must consider the disproportionate racial impact that may result from any legislation. Leaders and officials must make themselves aware of the effects of their choices.

Like financial or environmental impact assessments, racial impact tools provide policymakers with critical information and force them to confront the real life effects of policies they pass. Before legislation or ordinances are enacted, elected officials should require an assessment of the potential impact on people of color. This is especially critical in criminal justice legislation, where racially biased policing and incarceration has destroyed lives and crippled communities across the country. By using racial impact tools, decision makers and communities have the opportunity to proactively eliminate disproportionate effects on people of color and start to chip away at systemic racism.

In Practice

A number of cities throughout the country have used racial impact tools to assess the impact of existing or potential policies. The information provided by racial impact tools can be powerful advocacy and organizing resources. Philadelphia ended zero-tolerance discipline policies after seeing the disproportionate effect on students of color. Similarly, Seattle ended the use of criminal background checks in employment decisions after assessing the unfair impact that such policies had on men of color. Seattle also uses a racial equity tool in budget, policy, and program decisions. Minneapolis has recently created the Office of Equitable Outcomes to ensure the most equitable outcomes in every city department or division. In Madison, assessing racial impact has resulted in more inclusion of people of color in government. While there are no prominent examples, racial impact assessments can and should be used within police departments to evaluate the impact of different policing policies.

Best Practices:

Racial impact tools, which reveal the impact of existing and potential legislation or regulations on communities of color, can be used to assess local, state, or federal legislation but have most commonly been used on the local level.

  • These tools are most useful in jurisdictions that have an office or department of racial equity. The department’s role is to ensure that policy decisions are assessed thoroughly for racial impact. The department can also ensure that internal government operations, such as hiring and contracting, are racially equitable.
  • Jurisdictions must decide on a common language to discuss racial equity and must define and provide examples of various forms of racism and inequity, including individual, institutional, and structural racism, as well as implicit and explicit bias. Government officials and staff should receive trainings on common language and on various forms of racism or racial inequity.
  • It is not enough to simply address racial inequity within city hall or the state capitol. Government officials must consult and include community organizations working directly with impacted racial or ethnic groups, as well as experts on racial equity. These partners should be involved at all steps of the process, including creating common language, assessing racial impact, and developing remedies to racially unequal policies.
  • Being data-driven is important. Data about the racial impact of policies must be used to set baselines and goals, measure progress, and evaluate success of individual policies and programs. However, data alone is not enough – people’s lived experiences and individual evaluations must also be taken into account when assessing impact.