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New Polk County attorney sets sights on disparities in justice system

Kimberly Graham has pledged to reform the justice system in Polk County to reduce both racial and economic disparities.
Madeleine King
IPR file
Kimberly Graham has pledged to reform the justice system in Polk County to reduce both racial and economic disparities.

Kimberly Graham wants to reduce racial and economic disparities in Polk County. One of her early goals is to end prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession.

The state’s largest county has a new county attorney who is pledging to reduce racial and economic disparities in the justice system.

Kimberly Graham was elected as Polk County attorney in November and takes over for John Sarcone who served in the position for 32 years.

Graham, a Democrat, said she is alarmed at the increase in homicides in Des Moines in 2022 and wants to “create a healthy, safer, thriving Polk County.” At the same time, though, she wants to change the way many non-violent offenses are handled in order to avoid trapping people, particularly people of color and people with low-incomes, in a cycle of arrests and fines.

As a first step, Graham said she will direct Polk County prosecutors to no longer request cash bail for most low-level, non-violent offenses. People of color are disproportionately more likely to be jailed because they can’t afford to post bail.

Graham said the final decision in each case is up to the judge, who may also refer to bond guidelines set in state law. But she believes prosecutors will influence their decisions.

“If the assistant county attorney is standing there saying, ‘Judge, this person does not have a significant criminal history and is not a flight risk, not a safety risk. We would like to request this person to be released on their own recognizance.’ I believe that at least a decent number of judges will be willing to follow that recommendation. And that will also help reduce the jail population which is something we always want to do because it’s generally full, if not overcrowded.”

Graham also wants to make it easier for a person to reinstate their driver’s license if it has been revoked because of unpaid court fines and fees.

Kimberly Graham speaks at a podium as part of a forum for county attorney candidates held at Drake University on May 24, 2022.
Grant Gerlock
IPR file photo
Kimberly Graham speaks as part of a forum for county attorney candidates held at Drake University on May 24, 2022.

Polk County has an existing reinstatement program that she said requires a payment of at least $50 per month. But if that amount is unaffordable, a person may simply continue driving without a license risking more serious charges.

“They could lose their job if they're in jail for a couple of weeks because they can't make bail,” Graham said. “It just becomes this endless cycle that they can't get out of, so we want to kind of give them a leg up that they can actually hold onto and be able to get out of that cycle.”

Graham said she is looking into lowering the required monthly payment to as low as $1 per month to qualify for license reinstatement.

One area where data has shown a large racial disparity in policing is in marijuana arrests. Black Iowans are seven times more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana, according to an ACLU study from 2020.

Graham said she wants to create a diversion program so that people arrested for small amounts of marijuana are able to avoid criminal prosecution. Although she cannot change drug laws or policing patterns, Graham said a diversion program can keep a drug conviction from appearing on a person’s criminal record.

“It's important to note, too, that (a marijuana conviction) on someone's record, especially for a younger person, can actually prevent them from opportunities later in their life,” she said. “It can even prevent them from getting low-income housing and from getting other financial resources that they really may need.”

“There are different ways of enforcing the law and there are different ways of holding people accountable, and holding people accountable doesn’t always mean putting them in jail or creating a criminal record for them.”

Racial justice advocates who supported Graham’s campaign are watching to see that she follows through on promises to address disparities in marijuana enforcement.

“There's a lot of people sitting in Iowa prisons and jails for low-level possession of marijuana,” said Lori Young, a member of the racial justice team with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “They didn't hurt anybody. They didn't steal anything from anybody. They didn't shoot anybody. So, it's not a good use of our taxpayer funds and it really ruins people's lives for decades to come even after they serve their sentence.”

Iowa CCI endorsed Graham and the list of issues the group wants her to work on is extensive. It covers everything from plea bargaining and the racial makeup of juries to wage theft and disparities in juvenile detention.

With a sympathetic ear in the county attorney’s office, Young said there is a feeling of urgency among racial justice advocates. But, she said, they are also trying to keep in mind the limited power of the county attorney.

“It's too much to ask one person to fix everything,” Young said. “We're trying to manage our expectations. We're going to be patient, but we're going to be calling her with questions and meeting with her. We want to see her succeed because if she succeeds our community thrives, but we understand it's going to take time.”

One of the challenges that comes with taking over a position that was held by the same person for more than 30 years, Graham said, is managing new relationships with law enforcement officials and others inside the justice system. Graham has held hours-long meetings with police chiefs across Polk County and started meeting with staff members in the county attorney’s office over the summer to begin building connections.

She said her ability to make changes in the justice system in Polk County will depend on her ability to build relationships with the people who make that system work.

“A lot of this is kind of moving a ship, a giant Titanic that's going in one direction, and it just isn't going to move on a dime,” she said.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa