What will it take to make new criminal justice reform effort work? Money, legislator says

Ako Abdul-Samad applauds governor's initiative, but says solutions will cost at least $500,000

State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, speaks at a demonstration in February 2017 in Cedar Rapids in support of polic
State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, speaks at a demonstration in February 2017 in Cedar Rapids in support of policing and justice reform. Abdul-Samad, the longest-serving African American in the Iowa Legislature, welcomed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ announcement this month that she is forming a task force to study criminal justice issues in the state.(Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds is assembling a group of stakeholders to discuss criminal justice reforms in hopes of finding ways she and state legislators can make immediate and long-term improvements to reduce criminal behavior in Iowa and give individuals a second chance.

The Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform (Fueling Ongoing Collaboration and Uncovering Solutions), will be charged with recommending changes to reduce the number of offenders who return to jail and examining ways to bring about “bias-free” criminal justice in Iowa, including through law enforcement, the courts and jails.

“Iowans recognize the power of redemption and second chances, which is why I have made criminal justice reform a key priority for my administration,” Reynolds said in announcing the committee’s formation earlier this month. She named Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former state public defender, to serve as the group’s chairman and lead the effort to forge a package of legislative proposals aimed at advancing her administration’s “second chance” initiative.

In recent years, the Legislature enacted sentencing reforms and the Judicial Branch took steps to address racial disparities in jury selection and enhance anti-bias efforts within the court system. Earlier this year, Reynolds also encouraged employers to hire more formerly incarcerated people and signed legislation that limits the liability of companies that hire people who have past convictions. She also will push for a constitutional amendment covering felon voting rights again next legislative session.

Previously, former Gov. Terry Branstad embarked on a similar effort to remove inequalities within Iowa’s criminal justice system and curb bad law enforcement tactics by developing a strategy to better modernize and increase equity in Iowa’s criminal justice policies. The wide-ranging discussion included issues of racial profiling, so-called “ban the box” fair-chance employment, the “school to prison pipeline” and Iowa’s high ranking nationally for incarcerating African Americans on a per capita basis — issues that still persist.

In an interview, state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, the longest-serving of five African American lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature, welcomed Reynolds’ announcement but said what is needed is action and funding, not just more study.

Q: What are your thoughts on the governor’s new initiative?

A: “I think anything that we can do to help individuals re-enter society or to address the criminal justice system is a plus. The key is coming up with a comprehensive plan. The committee needs to focus on that. A lot of times we do cosmetic things. We need to focus on our system, and I think this is a step to focus on a systemic solution rather than a cosmetic one.”

Q: What will it take to make that happen?


A: “We’ve got to put money behind it now. Let’s start setting aside because if we wait until after when solutions start coming, then we’re looking for money. Let’s be proactive and say we’re going to start setting some money aside now or putting it in so when these solutions start coming out we’re going to start immediately implementing or start doing what is necessary to do that.”

Q: How much money do you envision?

A: “I think we’re talking about a minimum of about $500,000.” He said the money should go to programs such as a successful welding training program offered by Des Moines Area Community College for female inmates at the Mitchellville prison that fell victim to recent state budget cuts. Funding also is needed to help individuals leaving prison to relocate in a new environment and to assist family members who are negatively affected when a “bread winner” is incarcerated. He also pointed to a South Dakota program where prison inmates learned construction skills by building low-income housing that was a “win-win” by addressing two separate needs. “If we’re not talking about those types of solutions, then we’re talking about a committee that has no teeth,” he said.

Q: Legislation seeking to bar racial profiling, require profiling prevention training for law enforcement officers and establish standardized data collection on officer stops and compliance has stalled in the Iowa Senate. Does it appear that will be the case again in 2020?

A: “That’s probably the case. One aspect of this is we need to sit down with the police departments so they don’t feel like they’re being attacked. We need to have some real conversations on stereotyping and training and mindset and let them know that this has to be a win-win for all of us for that bill to even come out. You have a lot of police officers throughout the state of Iowa who say we don’t do racial profiling, and I really believe that a lot of them believe that because they’re not looking at a conditioning that they are having that they are in. If you grew up in a small town in Iowa and in the last decade you’re just seeing the transition of people of color and Latinos in your community, you still have a mindset. You have a mindset that has been passed down from generation to generation, so we have to address that mindset.”

Q: Iowa State Patrol officers are not equipped with body cameras. Should they be?

A: “Yes. Not only for the recording, but for their own safety. We as elected officials need to make sure that our law enforcement officers as well as our correctional officers have all the tools they need to protect and serve. That includes themselves. For us not to have body cameras on our highway patrolmen when we have seen time after time on the news to where a highway patrolman has saved a life or has been hit by another car trying to deal with another car or if an incident takes place. We need to do that. We’re living in a very hazardous climate right now. Why would we not protect them? It doesn’t make sense.”

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