IOWA LEGISLATURE

After landmark bill in 2020, Iowa state lawmakers set sights on furthering social justice

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation June 12, 2020, on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signs bipartisan legislation June 12, 2020, on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. The landmark law, following Black Lives Matters protests, banned the use of police choke holds and mandated other elements on unbiased policing. Iowa lawmakers plan to continue the discussion of other reforms during this year’s legislative session, which starts Monday. (Olivia Sun/Des Moines Register via AP)
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DES MOINES — Last year’s session brought historic change in social justice legislation, motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests that followed George Floyd being choked to death by a Minneapolis police officer.

Iowa lawmakers from both political parties pledged in that monumental moment the legislation was only the beginning of a discussion about racial and social justice.

They resume their work Monday for the 2021 session. Will they honor that pledge to keep the conversation moving?

“I don’t think anybody thinks our work here is done. I think when we advanced this legislation, everyone acknowledged it was a first step,” said Zach Wahls of Coralville, leader of the minority Senate Democrats. “There’s certainly more work to do.”

The legislation passed last year banned the use of police choke holds, with some exceptions, required de-escalation and bias training for police, banned hiring officers who have been fired for misconduct or for using excessive force and cleared the state attorney general to investigate cases when an officer’s actions resulted in an individual’s death.

Months later, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of any Iowan who has been convicted of a felony and completed his or her sentence. Reynolds had spearheaded an effort to amend the Iowa Constitution to accomplish that, but that process derailed in the Republican-led Iowa Senate. So Reynolds issued her executive order shortly before the 2020 election.

This year

Attempts at additional social justice legislation this year could include addressing racial profiling in policing, decriminalizing marijuana and correcting disparities in the justice system.

Republicans hold majorities in both the Iowa Senate and House, so they set the legislative agenda.

“Our caucus has been working on (justice issues) for the last four years,” said Jack Whitver of Ankeny, Republican majority leader. “The main thing is to modernize our criminal code so that it fits the 21st century. ... We’ve been trying to right-size that for a long time.”

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Whitver and Pat Grassley, the Republican House Speaker from New Hartford, seemed to indicate they do not expect the constitutional amendment on felon voting to come up again this year, though said they’d consider it if the governor puts it forward. Advocates, while pleased with the governor’s executive order, prefer a constitutional amendment, which is more permanent than an executive order, which can be undone by the next governor.

Recommendations

Reynolds last year established a FOCUS committee to discuss further social justice proposals.

The committee was comprised of state officials, law enforcement officials and advocates, and its proceedings were led by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former state public defender.

The committee met at least five times after last year’s session, and in October formulated a report with three recommendations, all of which support unbiased policing:

• Require and automate data collection on race and ethnicity from law enforcement stops.

• Analyze and study the data and provide annual reports on the findings.

• Ban disparate treatment in law enforcement activities and the delivery of police services.

“Race and other individual demographics simply shall not be a factor in police action outside of situations involving a description of a specific suspect, and Iowa law should reflect that principle,” the committee’s report says.

Whitver and Grassley said their members will consider the recommendations.

“I’m confident our judiciary committee is taking a look at the lieutenant governor’s recommendations,” Whitver said. “We’ll sort through those.”

More ideas

Wahls said he hopes lawmakers will consider another report, filed in December by the state Department of Human Rights, that speaks to “breaking the cycle of intergenerational injustice.”

That report recommends steps to end racial profiling but also recommends legislators examine policies designed to eliminate racial disparities in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems, and in the use of excessive force on incarcerated Iowans.

Todd Prichard of Charles City, a lawyer who is leader of the minority House Democrats, said he is pleased with last year’s landmark law and hopes for more actionthis year.

“I think it shows a commitment from both parties in the state that we are committed to justice in society in Iowa,” Prichard said.

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“As somebody who has worked in law enforcement as a prosecutor, the best way to make the streets safe for everyone, for the police and for the public, is to have and build relationships and trust amongst the public and police departments and (other) law enforcement agencies.”

Comments: (563) 333-2659; erin.murphy@lee.net

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