Government

Summit to address racial disparities in Iowa's criminal-justice system

Iowa leaders say more must be done now to address disparities for minorities in the state's criminal justice system

Gov. Terry Branstad joined Betty Andrews, president of the NAACP’s Iowa-Nebraska chapter, and representatives of Iowa’s judicial and legislative branches and social-justice organizations Wednesday in announcing a two-day conference in Ankeny next month aimed at addressing racial inequality concerns related to prison incarceration rates, law enforcement tactics and other concerns. (Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Gov. Terry Branstad joined Betty Andrews, president of the NAACP’s Iowa-Nebraska chapter, and representatives of Iowa’s judicial and legislative branches and social-justice organizations Wednesday in announcing a two-day conference in Ankeny next month aimed at addressing racial inequality concerns related to prison incarceration rates, law enforcement tactics and other concerns. (Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Iowa leaders say more must be done now to address disparities for minorities in the state’s criminal justice system.

Gov. Terry Branstad joined representatives from the NAACP’s Iowa-Nebraska chapter, Iowa’s judicial and legislative branches, and social-justice organizations Wednesday in announcing a two-day conference next month aimed at addressing racial inequality concerns related to prison incarceration rates, law enforcement tactics and other concerns.

The third annual Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities to be held Aug. 28-29 in Ankeny will focus on issues of racial profiling, so-called “ban the box” fair-chance employment, the “school to prison pipeline,” personal responsibility, changes in Iowa law, implicit bias and Iowa’s No. 1 ranking nationally for incarcerating African Americans on a per capita basis.

“For far too long, Iowa has ranked at the top of the list of states with the overrepresentation of African-Americans in the criminal justice system. Other minorities are also disproportionately affected,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conference of Branches.

Most notably, she said, was a 2007 report indicating that African Americans make up 3.2 percent of Iowa’s population but 26 percent of its prison inmates and are incarcerated at a rate 13.6 times as great as white Iowans compared to a national per capita measure of about six to one.

“This is more than double that national average and subsequent reports have consistently supported these findings,” Andrews told a Statehouse news conference announcing the upcoming summit. “This is nothing short of a crisis. Iowa has to deal with this disparity from within the criminal justice system and from within the community.”

Given the current backdrop of race-related incidents in Florida, Missouri, Maryland and other U.S. locations, Andrews said Iowa can be a catalyst for “unified change” in bringing together government, law enforcement, judicial, corrections and advocacy organizations to seek system reforms and address the overrepresentation of African Americans in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

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“On behalf of the NAACP, let me say this is not just a moment for us, it is a movement,” Andrews said. “You see we have come for change and to quote Dr. King now is the time.”

Branstad said he welcomed the opportunity to participate in the summit and noted that while the state’s Department of Corrections and Board of Parole have made “some strides” in reducing Iowa’s overall prison population and the “recidivism” rate of released inmates who reoffend, he said “I know there is a lot more we can do” to implement “common-sense” policy changes that benefit all Iowans.

Russell Lovell, a retired Drake University law professor who volunteers on a legal redress committee studying criminal justice issues, said the racial disproportionality of Iowa’s prison system will take a long time to address without sentencing reform given that many inmates currently are serving mandatory minimum sentences.

Lovell also noted that Iowa is one of 20 states that does not have a statutory prohibition on racial profiling and has a jury-selection system that creates a “double whammy” for minorities by underrepresenting them in jury pools. He also pointed to issues of police discretion — particularly for drug laws — that result in higher arrest rates for minorities.

Jeremy Rosen, executive director of ACLU of Iowa, also expressed concern that Iowa prisons have become “warehouses” for people with mental health and addiction issues who should be receiving treatment rather than part of the criminal justice system.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said more attention needs to be given to directing children and young people to education so they have dreams about their futures rather than “preparing them for a pipeline to prison.”

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