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Racial Disparities in Iowa Prisons an "Illness"

Joyce Russell/IPR
Iowa Nebraska NAACP Director Betty Andrews in Capitol Rotunda

The NAACP announced today it will host a two-day summit next month to take a comprehensive look at racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.  

Law enforcement, judges, corrections officials and others will examine why African-Americans make up a bigger percentage in Iowa prisons than they do in the population as a whole.   

It’s a bigger event than the group has sponsored in the past.   

Governor Branstad will attend and the national NAACP will be on hand for the Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities.  

“This  is not just a moment  for us,” says Betty Andrews, director of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP.   “It is a movement.   We have come for change.”

Surveys show Iowa leads the nation in disproportionate representation of blacks in prison, especially for marijuana offenses.    So the summit will examine some of the potential causes and possible solutions.    

But getting those enacted may be a hard slog.   

Take racial profiling, one potential reason why blacks brush up against the law more than whites.   Russ Lovell is a retired attorney who heads the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee.    Lovell says Iowa is one of 20 states without a racial profiling statute.

“Iowa prides itself in being a leader on equality issues and we’re not a leader on this issue,” Lovell says.      

Participants will present a model statute for  lawmakers  to consider next year.   It will provide  penalties for officers who arrest on the basis of race.  Skeptics argue that many law enforcement agencies already have policies against it.      

Lovell says they’ll also look at sentencing reforms that could help get minority numbers down.      

“We sometimes hear that we don’t have a problem,” Lovell says, “that if you do the crime you do the time.” 

That’s in part why sentencing reforms proposed in the last legislative session failed.  

In his January Condition of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Mark Cady urged lawmakers to address the issue of racial disparities in Iowa prisons.    

He got a standing ovation, but the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee was skeptical.  

“Did they commit the crimes of what they're accused of committing?” asks Rep. Chip Baltimore (R-Boone).   “And every time the answer is yes.   And that’s without regard to skin color.”

Bills to scale back marijuana penalties that experts say disproportionately affect blacks didn’t get very far.   One would have reduced penalties for possession of very small amounts of pot. 

“I think you have members of both parties right now willing to work at our criminal sentencing for some common sense reforms,” says Sen. Jack Whitver (R-Ankeny).

But the bill died in the law-and-order dominated House Public Safety Committee.     Backers say some critics don’t understand just how harsh some penalties are for low-risk offenders.  

Russ Lovell says there’s yet another issue that needs attention.

“People of color may be experiencing a double whammy in our jury process here in Iowa,” Lovell says. 

That means blacks may be underrepresented on the jury of peers on which the criminal justice system depends.

One African-American in the Iowa House, Rep. AkoAbdul-Samaad (D-Des Moines), has high hopes for the summit.

“The NAACP has taken this step to address an illness that this state has,” says Abdul-Samaad.

“To quote Dr. King, now is the time,” adds Betty Andrews. 

Andrews says the summit will also look at a justice issue that goes beyond the courts.   They’ll work on legislation to limit employers’ ability to consider the criminal record of potential employees.  

One bill to address that problem failed last year.   It would have taken information off the court’s public website if charges are dropped.  That would prevent employers from dismissing a job applicant because of a criminal record even if charges should not have been filed in the first place.