ACLU: In Iowa, African-Americans more likely to be arrested for marijuana

Iowa has highest racial disparity; legalization an option, report

African-Americans in Iowa are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasians, according to a new report out of the American Civil Liberties Union.

That places Iowa at the top of the list nationally in racial disparity of arrests for marijuana possession. A breakdown of Iowa counties shows Dubuque County has the “worst” racial disparity for marijuana possession in Iowa, followed by Woodbury, Johnson, Linn and Clayton counties.

The marijuana arrest disparities exist in Iowa despite findings of equal marijuana use among Caucasians and African Americans, according to the report.

“That means we were able to get past the explanation that blacks are criminals and commit more crimes,” said Randall Wilson, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa.

The ACLU report, using data from the FBI and the U.S. Census Bureau, found that on average nationally in 2010 an African-American was 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than a Caucasian. Iowa had the highest racial disparity in marijuana arrest rates, with an African-American being 8.34 times more likely to be arrested than a Caucasian, followed by Washington D.C., Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Iowa’s marijuana arrest rate translates to 1,454 African-Americans arrested per 100,000 of the African-American population, compared with 174 Caucasians arrested per 100,000 of the Caucasian population, according to the ACLU.

Wilson called the findings “devastating,” and he said the study supports other reports pointing out racial disparities in arrests and incarceration rates. The report, according to Wilson, is evidence that Iowa needs to make criminal justice equality a priority.

“The point of the report is not so much that police are evil and discriminatory and shouldn’t be enforcing law,” Wilson said.

The point is, he said, to show that our criminal justice system currently is being operated in a way that results in the over-incarceration of one race.

“We all need to take responsibility, whether as citizens, police on the streets, or administrators,” Wilson said. “We can all do something to change this culture if we truly care about justice and equal opportunity.”

Why the disparities?

As to the cause of the disparities, Wilson credited them – in part – to an “inherent bias and prejudice.” He said marijuana possession is a charge that law enforcement can “choose to ignore, if they wish.”

“The fact that they are exercising their discretion to mainly arrest only blacks for this crime is a good marker for the inherent bias and prejudice that we all have,” he said.

Wilson said law enforcement agencies also are under pressure to earn federal grants based on total arrests, and that could be propelling disparities in arrests.

But analysts looking at reports of police bias have argued that, perhaps, African-Americans simply commit more crimes. Wilson said the ACLU, in its study, didn’t analyze how often marijuana arrests were accompanied by other charges.

“But I think most arrests are not in the multiple-arrest situation,” he said.

His reading of the data is that African-Americans simply are stopped and arrested for having small amounts of marijuana more often than Caucasians.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, however, said officers rarely stop individuals just because they see them smoking or receive complaints about use.

“Something else will draw attention to them,” Gardner said.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t reviewed its data to see if deputies make a disproportionate number of African-American arrests. But Gardner said he’s not aware that it’s an issue.

“It doesn’t appear to be a large problem,” he said. “We don’t have many complaints about it.”

Linn County deputies are trained to make arrests based on an offense, not color, Gardner said. But, he said, it would be interesting to get to the bottom of the ACLU’s findings.

“If it’s happening, and we are not aware of it, it would be interesting to find out why,” he said.

The impact

Song Richardson, University of Iowa law professor, said she’s hoping this report will prompt change among law enforcement locally and nationally.

“I think the numbers are shocking,” she said. “They belie the claim that is often made that blacks are focused on by police because they commit more crimes. We have evidence that they use pot to the same extent.”

The disparities, according to Richardson, cannot be explained away as simple racism. She also believes arrest incentives tied to federal grants are to blame, in part, because police often have easier access to African-American communities.              

Her hope is that local authorities take the findings seriously, and the federal government makes changes in how it distributes funding. Without action, according to Richardson, African-Americans could continue to suffer the “severe collateral consequences” of marijuana charges at a higher rate than Caucasians.

“It affects their ability to get a job and to vote and to obtain any sort of social services,” she said. “Think about the ways you have these cascading affects on individuals and families and communities.”

Drake University law professor Russell Lovell agreed that one marijuana arrest can have a significant impact on a person – with time spent in jail, fines and court costs and the impact of having a criminal record.

He said law enforcement needs to make changes in how it polices and prosecutes minor marijuana crimes. The ACLU, in its report, suggested Iowa just legalize marijuana use.According to the report, legalization of marijuana is the “smartest and surest way to end racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws.”

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