ALTOONA — Iowa’s black youths are punished at school and arrested five times more often than white youths — and the racial disparity in arrests is widening, according to a state report.
That disparity was the subject of a conference Wednesday that drew dozens of officials from the courts and law enforcement.
“It is time for each one of us to confront and eliminate the implicit bias and disparity that exists in our criminal justice system,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, who spoke here.
Iowa has the highest rate of black incarceration in the nation. And, according to an early summary of a report from the state Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning that will be published in August, black Iowa youths are five times more likely than white youths to be suspended from school and are five times more likely to be arrested.
The arrest rate of black youths has increased 3.4 percent in nine of the state’s metropolitan areas, but the arrest rate of white youths has decreased nearly 31 percent at the same time, the report summary said.
“The overrepresentation of African-Americans in our criminal justice system is brought to life in our own data. It is visible, it is factual, and its impact is felt in our communities,” Cady said. “Let us never forget that the data has a face.”
A significant part of the problem is the country’s reliance upon incarceration, said James Bell, founder and executive of the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity of Oakland, Calif., and another of the speakers.
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“Our justice system is driven by an addiction. And that addiction has always been, from the 1600s and 1700s to today, our societal reliance on incarceration as a primary instrument of societal control,” he said. “When you have to put a child on a crate to fingerprint them to incarcerate them, that’s an addiction.”
Bell said states are not adequately funding services that would help prevent minority juveniles from running afoul of the law and the court system has become overly burdened by an issue it is not equipped to handle.
“The justice system is the dumping ground for other failed systems, and the justice system, to its credit, keeps taking them,” Bell said, using drug and family courts as examples that the court system is handling people it shouldn’t. “Treatment courts are the tacit admission by the justice department that it’s dealing with societal problems. … What that is is justice saying, ‘We can’t do this, but you keep asking us to.’”
The report summary also highlighted pilot projects throughout Iowa, including:
• A school diversion program in Johnson County. From 2012 to 2014, arrests in the Iowa City school district dropped 61 percent from 137 to 53, according to the report. Sixteen juveniles — 14 of them black — were referred to the diversion program; only four of the total committed another offense.
• School mentoring efforts in Linn County. Local officials are trying to provide mentors for black youths experiencing difficulty in school as a way to prevent later referrals to juvenile justice services.