By Johanna Kaiser, Development and Communications Associate

Racial disparities plague public life. Rhode Islanders experience them as early as elementary school and they persist throughout life. As policy makers and state officials discuss how these racial disparities can be addressed in Rhode Island, they must consider a number of bills that would help correct racial disparities and address issues that disproportionally affect minority communities. The ACLU of Rhode Island has long supported these bills that will make Rhode Island a better and more equal place for all its residents. 

Below are of some of bills the legislature can pass to make positive changes in regard to race. In parenthesis, we have indicated where the bill ended up at the end of the 2015 General Assembly.

School Discipline (Passed by Senate and House; Never Approved by Opposite Chamber)
Even as consensus grows nationwide that out-of-school suspensions carry a lifetime of ill effects and should only be used for the most serious offenses, Rhode Island’s students are routinely suspended from school for small infractions that pose no risk of physical harm or serious distraction to their peers. The ACLU has demonstrated for the past several years that the tremendous overuse of suspensions in Rhode Island’s schools leaves minority students disproportionately affected, particularly for the less-serious “subjective” offenses requiring that suspensions be served in-school, unless the student poses a physical risk or serious distraction to other students, and requiring school districts to examine their discipline data annually and come up with plans to mitigate any disproportionate suspension rates that may exist.

Equal Pay (Passed Senate, Died in House)
Despite laws to the contrary, women nationwide generally earn just 77% of the wages earned by men, with that percentage dropping significantly for women of color. Legislation sought to make it easier for individuals facing wage differentials to file a civil action against their employer, during which it would be up to the employer to demonstrate that the wage gap was on the basis of something other than sex.

Voter ID Repeal (DIED)
Voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchises elderly voters, low-income voters, disabled voters, students, transient voters, and minority voters, leaving these already-underrepresented populations with an even weaker voice in government. Compromise legislation that was floated in previous years to “freeze” the voter ID requirement in a non-photo form was never adopted; legislation now seeks to eliminate this harmful photo ID requirement.

Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana (DIED)
The “War on Drugs” has resulted in an astronomical number of individuals in jail instead of treatment, and a disproportionate arrest rate for black individuals even though black and white individuals use marijuana at roughly the same rate. Current prohibition practices have resulted in overcrowded prisons, not the reduction of drug use or exposure of children to drugs. This legislation would have legalized, regulated, and taxed marijuana use by adults.

Prison-Based Gerrymandering (Passed by Senate, Died in House)
When it comes to drawing new voting districts, any individuals incarcerated at the ACI in Cranston on the day the Census worker comes through are recorded as living on Howard Avenue, including individuals awaiting or serving misdemeanor sentences during which they are still allowed to vote. As a result, Cranston is overrepresented in the General Assembly, while the districts from where the prisoners hail—often poor, urban areas—are underrepresented. Under the current plan, approximately 15% of House District 20 is comprised of voters who cannot vote in Cranston. The legislation would rectify this disparity and require all prisoners to be counted, for voting purposes only, at their last known address.

The ACLU will continue to advocate for these bills in the coming years. If you’d like to stand with us in support of these bills, sign up for our e-alerts or consider volunteering.