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Throughout last summer’s racial justice protests, demonstrators frequently called for an end to “systemic racism.” Broadly defined, it’s policies and practices entrenched in a society that harm certain racial groups and help others, whether intentionally or not. IPR News is looking at what systemic racism looks like in Iowa -- including housing, criminal justice, education, health care, business ownership, and farming -- and how it affects Black Iowans today.

'It's Akin To A Death': Why Racial Disparities In Iowa's Prisons Persist And The Toll They Take

Black Iowans are imprisoned at a rate more than ten times that of white Iowans, one of the largest racial disparities in prison populations in the country.
Lauren Justice for NPR

The racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons are more extreme than almost anywhere else in the country, with Black Iowans imprisoned at a rate 11 times that of white Iowans. As part of our series of reports on systemic racism in Iowa, IPR examines how Iowa got here and the role that prosecutors play in these disparities.

Stark racial disparities persist in Iowa prisons

Iowa is one of the whitest states in the country, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that standing in a prison yard.

Census numbers show just 4 percent of the state’s population is Black. But as of 2016, 25 percent of incarcerated Iowans were Black.

Johnny Pippins sees this firsthand. He’s incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. He’s also trained as a sociologist and statistician, and is in the early stages of a project analyzing racial disparities in plea deals in Iowa.

“I'm looking at these young men whose lives are just irrevocably changed by this. And they didn't have to be,” Pippins said.

“I'm looking at these young men whose lives are just irrevocably changed by this. And they didn't have to be."
-Johnny Pippins, incarcerated at Anamosa State Penitentiary

No other country in the world incarcerates more of its citizens and no group has felt this more acutely than Black Americans.

Prison populations have exploded since the 1970s, as state and federal lawmakers created a flurry of new felony crimes, lengthened sentences and expanded mandatory minimums, shifting discretion from judges to prosecutors.

Still, research indicates higher incarceration rates have a minimal effect on crime rates.

Locking up more people on longer sentences at higher costs has left communities worse off, Pippins says.

“And it's been a tremendous outlay on the part of the American people to fund this 50 year experiment, to the detriment of public schools, to the detriment of health care,” he said. “There's a lot of other things that we can be spending this money on.”

A legacy of discrimination

Monic Behnken says understanding why these disparities persist requires looking at patterns of discrimination that stretch back generations. She’s an attorney and professor in the sociology and criminal justice programs at Iowa State University.

“All of us who work in the system and we all do, are operating in a system that is still a relic of racism, of unacknowledged and unreckoned with racism that exists in our system still today,” Behnken said.

Behnken points to Black exclusion laws. Passed by Iowa’s first territorial legislature, and again after statehood, these laws were meant to ban Black people from coming to Iowa.

“Iowa, really, from its founding was incredibly hostile towards Black people living here, right? There's a reason there are few Black people living here,” Behnken said. “And even though those reasons are not codified in the law today, there's still hostility around Black people, people of color in general living here in Iowa and the Midwest.”

Into the 20th century, government policy and local attitudes locked Black families out of jobs, mortgages and neighborhoods. And those impacts are still felt today.

A 2019 report found that racial disparities across wealth, education and social mobility remain starker in the Midwest than almost anywhere else in the country.

While poverty and lack of education can contribute to higher crime rates, researchers say they can’t fully explain the racial disparities in prisons.

“My contention is that over-policing and over-prosecuting has thrown…has thrown those numbers out of whack,” Pippins said. “If predominantly Black communities were policed and prosecuted at the same rate as their socioeconomic, white counterparts, those numbers would regress to the mean. We would see them bear out like they are supposed to be.”

Examining the role of prosecutors

Many factors and players contribute to these disparities, namely law enforcement officers, judges and lawmakers. But a study published in the Iowa Law Review argues that prosecutors are a key driver.

Led by an elected county attorney, prosecutors have broad discretion over whether to file a charge or not, shaping the trajectory of a case from that point forward. Research has demonstrated that implicit bias can shape these decisions.

"To have the kind of discrepancies that we’re seeing in Iowa’s prison system, there’s almost no conclusion but that you would have to be charging more Black people with more serious crimes and convicting them at higher rates."
-Derek Miller, University of Iowa law student

University of Iowa law student Derek Miller analyzed how prosecutors in some of the state’s largest counties handled certain offenses over a seven year period. He found that Black Hawk County, home of Waterloo, where Black residents make up a greater share of the population than any other city in the state, is disproportionately contributing to the racial disparities in the state’s prisons.

“To have the kind of discrepancies that we’re seeing in Iowa’s prison system, there’s almost no conclusion but that you would have to be charging more Black people with more serious crimes and convicting them at higher rates,” he told IPR in March. “That’s what I saw in the data.”

State studies dating back 20 years have found differences in charging and sentencing outcomes in Iowa that weren’t associated with any factor but race, and that the trends were most apparent in Black Hawk County.

Miller found that half of the people Black Hawk County sent to prison were Black, though the county’s population is just 10 percent Black.

Effectively one in every five Black Iowans in prison was convicted in Black Hawk County alone.

Miller found that mandatory minimums for drug and robbery offenses underscore this. Statewide, a third of those serving on a mandatory minimum are Black.

The Black Hawk County Attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.

'People need to be called out'

Behnken cautioned against assuming that the disparities in Iowa's prisons flow from explicit racial bias. What’s more likely, she says, is the role of implicit bias: attitudes and stereotypes that shape our behaviors without us realizing it.

“I think it would be a mistake to assume that we have these disparities because our elected county attorneys are all overtly racist. I think that is an incorrect assumption,” Behnken said. “Certainly, overt bias can impact the way in which anyone does their job. What is I think more important here is the ways in which an unrecognized bias or implicit bias can impact the way in which someone does their job.”

Behind bars, Pippins agreed, saying it’s shortsighted to focus too closely on individual prosecutors when state lawmakers are setting policy.

“People need to be called out on that. People need to be called out…and when I say people, I mean people who make policies, not individual police officers, not individual prosecutors, but the people who make these policies,” Pippins said.

"These are our husbands. These are our fathers, our brothers, uncles. And so when you just think about…for a family in many ways, it's akin to a death […] It takes a toll on the soul of all Iowans.”
-Monic Behnken, sociology professor, Iowa State University

Across the country, advocates are calling for prosecutors to use their discretion to counteract mass incarceration and racial disparities, and are demanding change at the ballot box. Prosecutors in Seattle, Philadelphia and Dallas are simply declining to file certain charges, like possession of small amounts of drugs or offenses linked to poverty.

That could help those individual jurisdictions, but Behnken says she wants to see state leaders address the underlying inequality in communities of color.

“When you're talking about drug crimes and you're talking about property-related crimes or crimes that involve money, you really have to get at the root cause of that. And we understand that economic investment in those communities is a much more viable strategy other than responding with a law enforcement response,” Behnken said.

The toll 'on the soul of all Iowans'

In the meantime, the effects of these disparities on Black Iowans have been devastating, Behnken says.

“These are our husbands. These are our fathers, our brothers, uncles. And so when you just think about…for a family in many ways, it's akin to a death. And the trauma that families have to live with on a daily basis, having this person missing,” she said.

The lasting effects of incarceration ripple through families across generations, even after the person comes home. Those with criminal records struggle mightily to find work and housing, and are locked out of many public benefits, perpetuating a downward spiral of disadvantage.

The racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons and their lasting intergenerational impacts take a toll on all Iowans, Behnken says, whether they realize it or not.

“Just as a state, I think it has…it puts a weight on us about…knowing that we're doing something that's wrong. And our inability to get it right,” Behnken said. “It takes a toll on the soul of all Iowans.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter