An Iowa county attorney is one of the most powerful actors in the local legal justice system. That person has almost unlimited power to push for more punishment, many times in ways that are hidden from public view. Too often, county attorneys are focused on obtaining convictions and securing severe prison sentences, instead of addressing the root causes of crime. That can be a major driver of mass incarceration that compounds racial disparities throughout the justice system.
It’s concerning, then, to read Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden’s recent guest column complaining about a Gazette editorial highlighting an ACLU report on marijuana arrests. A black person in Linn County is 9.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though studies show that both black and white people use marijuana at about the same rate. That’s one of the worst rates in the state — and the country.
But Vander Sanden, instead of acknowledging the problem and how his office might address it, dismisses the data, draws false conclusions and even goes so far as to blame black people for the racism they experience in our justice system.
Contrary to Vander Sanden’s dismissal of the numbers before him, the data is clear: Marijuana is used at comparable rates by black and white people, but in Linn County, black people are arrested 9.7 times more often.
His assertions demonstrate the very problem with county attorneys who do not recognize that a key duty of their office is to pursue justice truly for all. He even offensively responds to concerns about racial inequities as being “anti-law enforcement” and “playing the race card.”
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Instead of chastising The Gazette editorial board, Vander Sanden might do better to consider some of the reforms that other county attorneys around the country are successfully pursuing, especially as more and more states decriminalize or legalize marijuana.
The best way for a county attorney to make an impact, of course, is to simply stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests. Other key actions that reform-minded county attorneys have been taking include:
• Following the lead of local prosecutors in places like Brooklyn, New York and Corpus Christi, Texas and exercising prosecutorial discretion to decline prosecution for most low-level marijuana offenses.
• Implementing a pretrial diversion program like the one in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin for individuals caught possessing small amounts of marijuana.
• Ending the use of cash bail for any marijuana possession offenses. Cash bail is an outdated and unfair practice that results in people with resources being released from jail while people with less money stay in jail. This can result in loss of income, a job and even custody of children.
• Working with local law enforcement and other officials, as has been done in Dallas, to move away from arrests for low-level marijuana possession.
• Never tacking on marijuana possession charges when prosecuting for more serious offenses.
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When evidence of serious problems in our criminal system lands on their doorstep, a county attorney should not engage in a blame game based on racial stereotypes. Instead, they need to reevaluate, innovate and live up to the standards set by the American Bar Association, which entrusts prosecutors with the duty “to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
To fix the legacy of racism in our justice system, we need to adopt reforms on multiple levels. Attitudes such as Vander Sanden’s make the problem worse, not better.
Dedric Doolin is president of the Cedar Rapids Branch of the NAACP. Pramod Dwivedi is health director of Linn County Public Health. Mark Stringer, is executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. Stacey Walker is a Linn County supervisor.