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Iowa's Chief Justice Wants to End Racial Disparity

John Pemble
Iowa Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines, May 17, 2013.

Chief Justice Mark Cady of the Iowa Supreme Court says Iowa’s criminal justice system is marked by racial disparities. In his State of the Judiciary address today, Cady told legislators he wants that to change.

According to the 2010 Census, in Iowa 9.4 percent of adult African American men are incarcerated. That's the third highest percentage of incarcerated African American men in the nation.

Chief Justice Cady says education is one of the ways the judicial branch is combating these disparities.

“The training the judicial branch provides to all staff, including new judges and magistrates, will now include education on recognizing implicit biases that may often contribute to the disparities,” Cady says.

An implicit bias is an unconscious prejudice or stereotype someone holds against a person or group. For example, a judge with an implicit bias towards people of color may consistently and unknowingly give more lenient sentences to white defendants.

State Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone, chairs the Judiciary Committee. He says the reason for the high incarceration of American Americans in Iowa is unknown, and questions if Iowa’s justice system unfairly targets minorities.

“The question I ask every time this gets brought up is…did they commit the crimes that they are accused of committing, and every time the answer is ‘yes,’” Baltimore says. “And that’s without regard to skin color.”

The chief justice also addressed the issue of courthouse security in light of the September, 2014, case in which a former city manager of Maquoketa opened fire at the Jackson County courthouse. He alone was killed in the incident.

Cady says the tragedy has inspired greater attention to courthouse safety and security.

“We have completed surveys to determine the current levels of security in each courthouse and have started to provide training to those who work in our courthouses and other state and county buildings,” Cady says. “

Baltimore says while the Jackson County shooting was important, it was also an isolated incident. He says the issue of courthouse security is best answered on the individual county level.

“Every county has different needs,” Baltimore says. “And I think the countries are best able to figure out what kind of security they need and what they want to pay for.”

Cady also announced today that on June 30, Iowa will be the first completely paperless court system in the nation. Additionally, Cady says the judiciary wants to integrate mobile technology into the courts so as to further simplify access.