Government

Linn County's new marijuana diversion program becomes racial justice flashpoint

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden talks June 22 with Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter at a plea he
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden talks June 22 with Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter at a plea hearing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A program introduced as a second chance for some first-time marijuana offenders in Linn County may actually amplify racial disparities in the criminal justice system and disproportionately affect low-income defendants, critics say.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden last week announced the program he said was designed to detour low-level offenders from drugs and divert them from courts and jails.

The program, which launches this year, is a beginning, said Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter — one the prosecutors’ office had been working on for years with community leaders, law enforcement agencies, government officials including the Linn County Board of Supervisors and others.

“Before the pandemic hit, we were very close to coming up with a diversion program … and then the pandemic hit and nothing happened for months,” she said. “But our office … decided that we were going to keep the ball rolling. So we got input from our lower (court) divisions that deal mostly with marijuana first offenses, got their input and drafted a policy.”

But since the program was unveiled, it has been met with criticism, including from Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who said it came as a surprise.

Walker said he received a memo about the program from Vander Sanden on Dec. 23 — just five days before it was publicly announced.

Notes exchanged between the supervisor and attorney — both elected Democrats — show Walker expressed concerns about the program’s structure and potential inequities and that he urged Vander Sanden to consult with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the NAACP over how to best structure the program for maximum impact.

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“I think the basis of the program is well-intended, and it’s a good start,” Walker said in an interview. “But as it is now, I don’t think it’s a good program. The biggest issue for me is that it does nothing to address racial inequities within the system.”

The ACLU of Iowa in April reported a Black person is 7.3 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though both groups use marijuana at about the same rate.

Iowa has one of the nation’s highest racial disparity rates for marijuana arrests, with only Montana, Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia having worse gaps, according to the ACLU.

The new marijuana diversion program requires participants be first-time offenders with no criminal record.

Disqualifiers like that. Walker said, keep the people most adversely impacted by marijuana policy from benefiting.

“If we can acknowledge that African Americans are over-policed and over-punished — which are observable facts and there’s a lot of research on this topic here in Iowa — then we know that a lot of African Americans have criminal records because they’re over-policed and over-punished,” Walker said.

“And if having a criminal record disqualifies you from participating in this program, then what you have done is create what I call a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who don’t have criminal records, and a lot of those people — and this is just the law of large numbers — will be white individuals.”

As a result, the program as structured could create even greater disparities, he said.

The Advocates for Social Justice, which last summer organized racial justice protests in Cedar Rapids and has met with local officials about public policy reforms, last week also criticized the program, saying it fails to acknowledge and rectify the fact that Blacks are charged with marijuana violations at a higher rate than whites.

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The program, it said in a statement, “indicates either a vast deficit in understanding of the underlying issues facing communities of color or blind disregard.”

“Certainly, we need some sort of diversion program,” said Anthony Arrington of Cedar Rapids, an ASJ board member. “But this plan falls short of addressing disparity, and you can’t ignore that part of it.”

Arrington said such a program shouldn’t be designed “in a vacuum.”

Slaughter characterized the group’s reaction to the program as “seemingly disingenuous.”

“Their response is essentially that if our diversion program isn’t perfect, don’t do anything at all,” she said. “This entire response wrongfully assumes that this diversion program was done unilaterally … which just isn’t true. This is something that we have been communicating about and working on for years … and so it more than frustrates me that when we finally do start doing something, the criticism is that we just haven’t talked to enough people or we don’t know enough about the racial disparities in jails and prisons to implement any program.”

Further, she said in response to Walker’s comments, “I think that it is a really unfortunate falsehood to assume that everyone in the, quote unquote, Black community has criminal records and therefore this can’t help them.

“What I can say is that this program, as it is written … is designed for people who are first offenders, which will probably be younger people. It’s a starting point. We can’t tackle the entire gambit of drug use and drug addiction, especially related to marijuana, let alone other drugs, without starting somewhere.”

The advocates group also raised concerns the program requires defendants to pay $100 in court costs, which could create undue hardship for low-income individuals.

Initially, Slaughter said, the program was going to operate with the help of the department of corrections services, which was going to create a position that was a cross between a parole officer and a case worker. When funding for that position fell through, Slaughter said the prosecutors’ office opted to handle the cases itself. There is no reason to assume, she said, that a defendant couldn’t pay court costs by doing community service instead.

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“I would just like to say, or ask for members of this community, to give the program enough of a chance to work — or enough of a chance to even happen — so that we can determine if it’s working or not.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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