In a place where people love to tout high marks on state-by-state rankings, this one might have slipped by you with everything else going on.
Iowa still comes in near the top on the shameful list of the nation’s most racist drug enforcement states. Black Iowans are more than 7 times more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession, the 5th-worst disparity in the nation, according to a report released this month by the American Civil Liberties Union based on 2018 data.
For context, black people nationally are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Several Eastern Iowa counties have even higher ratios than the statewide figure — 9.7 in Linn, 12.7 in Muscatine and 13.2 in Dubuque.
A 5th-place ranking is an improvement from 2013, when Iowa earned national disrepute as the U.S. leader in over-arresting black people for marijuana. The ratio has dropped from 8.3 to 7.3 since the first report was published. That’s progress, but not enough to be proud of.
Marijuana arrests are just one of the ways Iowa’s legal system targets black people, who are 11 times more likely to be behind bars than white people in Iowa.
Racism or implicit bias from some police officers is one factor driving racial disparities. Other issues include over-policing of poor neighborhoods and a lack of community oversight over law enforcement.
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Addressing disproportionality in the justice system is a complicated challenge, but there’s one cool trick almost a dozen states have used to drastically reduce the number of black people in jail for minor drug offenses — they legalized marijuana. There still are some marijuana-related charges in those states, but they are far fewer and racial disparities tend to be smaller.
While the ACLU’s recommendations include legalizing marijuana use and possession, Iowa’s political decision-makers have no interest in a full-scale recreational marijuana program. Polls show Iowa voters are warming up to the idea, but so far have not demanded it.
Short of that, authors of the ACLU report recommend curtailing police searches, developing better systems to track police activity and investing in non-punitive programs for drug users as alternatives to jail time and fines.
While many law enforcement agencies give token consideration to disparity reports and implicit bias training, results are the only worthwhile measure of progress. Iowa remains one of the worst in the nation.
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