At a time when people are protesting and rioting because of the tortured death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a punitive and unnecessary new Iowa law was quietly signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on June 1 which, by its very design, will inflict greater racial inequalities in Iowa’s justice system. According to the House floor manager of the bill, it was a priority of the County Attorney’s Association. The offense is eluding or fleeing police and, and according to nonpartisan analysis, the minority impact is staggering.
Minority impact statements, when used correctly, are safety nets, stop gaps. When proposed legislation projects an unfair impact on minorities, legislators and interested parties should stop, meet and discuss why minorities are convicted or impacted more by the proposed law than others. Urban Dreams founder and former Rep. Wayne Ford was responsible for pushing and passing this minority impact legislation and his vision is for every state to use this approach.
The question arising from this eluding bill that should have been discussed is why are minorities more likely to speed away from police or other law enforcement officers? George Floyd was an African-American man who was just sitting in a car. His alleged crime, using fake money to buy cigarettes. After being brutally pinned to the ground by four former Minneapolis police officers, he couldn’t breathe and died. Unfortunately, examples of police brutality toward minorities continue to grow in communities across the country. So it really isn’t surprising that a higher percentage of minorities would instinctively feel fearful or threatened when seeing flashing lights in the rearview mirror. When the flight instinct kicks in, rational thought goes right out the window as the foot hits the accelerator.
Probably the most appalling change to the law that wasn’t discussed in either chamber was that eluding with any amount of illegal drugs in your vehicle is now a felony. Some Iowans with alcohol, drug or mental health issues have had a number of unpleasant experiences with law enforcement officers where fear caused flight. How would charging these struggling souls with higher fines and more time in jail or prison help this ongoing social problem? Is a possible consequence for being more punitive further fear, more flight and a greater risk to public safety? This is the conversation that should have taken place, but didn’t, so we now have another flawed, primarily redundant law in the Iowa Code.
The short debate that took place on Monday afternoon March 2 highlighted an attitude held by powerful legislators who don’t understand or even know the purpose of a minority impact statement.
The bill’s Senate floor manager remarked, “Well look, I don’t look at race for the reason we’re doing this … I don’t think race plays any part in this particular piece of legislation …”
“As far as the minority report, I can sympathize … We don’t go into code and say based on this minority, this is the penalty, based on this minority, we’re going to do something different. We apply all standards across the board.”
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
The problem with this narrow viewpoint is that the enforcement of the law isn’t standard across the board. Enhanced penalties are a welcome and coveted “tool in the toolbox” for prosecutors in plea bargain negotiations, but offenders who can’t afford talented defense attorneys usually serve longer sentences and stiffer fines.
The lobbyists registered in support of this law include: Iowa Police Chief Association; Iowa State Police Association; Iowa State Association of Counties; Iowa Peace Officers Association; Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies Association. Strangely, the County Attorney’s Association was not registered on the bill, even though it was a priority.
Only two lobbies were registered against: The Iowa State Bar Association and the Iowa Association for Justice.
Minority impact statements are available to the public. So if elected officials aren’t using them to have needed discussions for desperately needed change, ordinary citizens can and should use this important tool. After all, it was government that drove us into this mess. We have the power to slowly drive away from it.
Stephanie Fawkes-Lee and Marty Ryan are former lobbyists who own Fawkes-Lee & Ryan, a public policy advocacy company.