State Sen. Chip Shields, D-N/NE Portland, met with Western Australian Government Minister Margaret Quirk Friday to discuss his push to enact a racial impact law in Oregon.
Shields' proposed racial impact statement law would require the legislature to measure the potential disparate racial impact of proposed sentencing laws. Quirk is interested in promoting a similar law in Australia.
Although 3 percent of Australia's population is Aborigine, they make up nearly 43 percent of the prison population there. There are other similarities between Western Australia and the United States, including longstanding institutionalized racism and an overcrowded prison system.
"The major problem is in the remote areas," she said. Unlike America, where minorities are disparately targeted for drug offenses, many of Australian's minorities are arrested for driving offenses. In remote areas, driver's licenses are difficult to obtain, yet policies are still enforced. She said there are entire towns where nobody has a driver's license.
"It's still very hard to have open discussions about institutionalized racism," she said.
Earlier in the year, Iowa state Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines, visited Sen. Shields to talk about the states racial impact statement law. Ford's bill was heavily influenced by Shields' legislation. Iowa has one of the highest rates of disparity in incarceration in the nation.
Quirk, who works with the Corrective Services Ministry, the equivalent of our Department of Corrections, says some recent events involving deaths in custody have impacted her beliefs in improving the penal system. She specifically mentioned the June 2009 death of an aborigine elder who was "cooked to death," according to the coroner, when being transported in the back of a prison van. The van was about 116 degrees (47 degrees celcius).
"It's galvanized me," she said.
Shields hopes to garner enough statewide support to pass his racial impact statement law in 2010.