Branstad names Iowa justice policy reform panel

New group will address 'troubling' criminal justice disparities

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ANKENY — Minority leaders in Iowa left a daylong summit on racial disparity issues Friday with newfound hope that Gov. Terry Branstad and other state officials will take steps to remove inequalities within Iowa’s criminal justice system and curb bad law enforcement tactics.

Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds joined more than 200 people from minority, social-justice and faith-based groups, academia, law enforcement agencies and all three branches of state government for a wide-ranging discussion of racial profiling, so-called “ban the box” fair-chance employment, the “school to prison pipeline,” personal responsibility, implicit bias and Iowa’s No. 1 ranking nationally for incarcerating African Americans on a per capita basis.

Branstad used the 3rd annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities — an event organized by the Iowa-Nebraska State Conference of Branches for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — to announce the formation of a working group that will research and make recommendations on ways to improve Iowa’s criminal justice practices by addressing “troubling” disparities that minorities and disadvantaged Iowans face in the current system.

“We understand that this is long range, but we also know that there are some ‘quick wins’ that can happen. So we’re looking at both of those. It’s really good to see that the governor is taking a hard look at this,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conference of Branches. “We hope they don’t just take this as a moment and that they do take it as a movement.”

Branstad said the newly formed Governor’s Working Group on Justice Policy Reform would consist of experts on justice polices and have access to all state agencies and resources for information and assistance as well as seeking public input. The group will look at mental health and drug court diversion programs, jury pool selection and juvenile criminal record confidentiality, and state prison and county jail phone call fees and present a written report by early November so the proposals can be considered during the 2016 legislative session.

“Iowa is a special state where people are good, hardworking, and look out for each other. Finding ways to improve the lives of our citizens is not a partisan issue, it’s an Iowan issue,” Branstad said in remarks to the summit participants.

“Iowans deserve laws and policies that preserve our freedoms, protect the innocent, and allow for every citizen — no matter their age, race, economic situation, or religion — to pursue the American dream,” he added. “It is for these reasons that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are looking forward to discussing positive solutions to the troubling disparities in our state.

The working group will consist of representatives from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the state court administrator’s office, the NAACP, state public defender’s office, the Iowa Board of Parole, the state departments of public safety and corrections and the Iowa county attorney’s association. Members will be charged with developing a strategy to better modernize and increase equity in Iowa’s criminal justice policies.

Branstad told reporters he hopes the working group’s findings will create the impetus for state lawmakers to address some of the concerns raised at Friday’s summit and he planned to instruct executive-branch agencies to make changes aimed at treating all Iowans equally.

“I think it’s got potential to see some positive results,” he said.

Friday’s Iowa summit was held against a backdrop of race-related incidents in Florida, Missouri, Maryland and other U.S. locations, as well as ongoing concerns about racial disparities within Iowa’s corrections and criminal justice system.

Andrews said it will take years of sentencing reform and other long-term efforts to address Iowa’s top national ranking among U.S. states for overrepresentation of African-Americans and other minorities that are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.

However, Branstad said Iowa’s Department of Corrections and Board of Parole have made improvements in improving civil rights and reducing Iowa’s overall prison population and the “recidivism” rate of released inmates who reoffend. But he said more needs to be done.

The governor noted that the corrections agency has reduced the rate of recidivism of black offenders to from 37.6 percent in 2011 to 30.2 percent last year — a level that was “virtually equal” to the rate for white offenders. He also said prison officials are working with the parole board and community-based corrections agencies to decrease the overall inmate population through a combination of offender-rehabilitation programs and risk assessments.

Branstad also noted that Iowa is one of five states chosen to lead a Statewide Recidivism Reduction effort with the help of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“It should always be a goal of government to ensure citizens are receiving equal treatment under the law, and are given every opportunity to succeed,” the governor said. “As we discuss challenges and their possible solutions, I would also like to keep in mind that while we look for ways to make laws and policies better, we should not lower the expectations of our citizens.”

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