If the need to reform Iowa’s criminal justice system wasn’t top of mind for state lawmakers, they got a pair of strong reminders this week.
First, Gov. Terry Branstad dedicated eight minutes of his Condition of the State address to advocating for a series of steps to improve Iowa’s criminal justice system and address troubling, stubborn racial disparities.
“Our state flag is emblazoned with the motto, ‘Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.’ Maintaining our rights means we must maintain those rights for all,” Branstad told lawmakers.
A day later, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady used his Condition of the Judiciary speech to call for reform.
“Racial disparity is a community problem requiring community solutions. The journey to identify and eliminate racial disparity continues for all of us,” Cady said.
These are welcome examples of leadership from two branches of government. We hope the third branch, the Iowa Legislature, was listening.
Branstad touted recommendation from his Working Group on Justice Policy Reform, a panel he formed in August to improving judicial practices with a special emphasis on racial disparities.
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Blacks make up 25 percent of Iowa’s prison population but only 3.3 percent of the state’s overall population, a disparity that is among the nation’s worst. More than 9 percent of Iowa’s black males are incarcerated, a rate also among the nation’s highest.
Branstad’s working group recommended more funding for drug and mental health courts that offer alternatives to incarceration, taking steps to increase the diversity in jury pools, giving judges the discretion to keep juvenile offense records confidential and improving phone access allowing inmates to stay in contact with family.
Cady addressed some of the same areas, and said more than 700 judges and other staff have received training on recognizing bias that might contribute to disparities, with more to come. He pointed to Johnson, Scott and Linn counties’ cooperation with Georgetown University on juvenile justice improvements. School referrals to Juvenile Court in Johnson County have dropped 61 percent, he said.
We support these efforts. Although we’re wary of any effort to make public records confidential, Branstad’s case-by-case proposal aimed at keeping a childhood mistake from unduly harming an adult makes sense.
Still, more can be done. In addition to these systemic reforms, lawmakers also should revisit some of the “tough on crime” penalties enacted over the last 20 years, particularly for non-violent drug offenses. That includes penalties for low-level, first offense marijuana possession. A 2013 ACLU study found blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana crime than whites, despite similar use rates.
Branstad also could demonstrate his commitment by rescinding an executive order making it exceedingly difficult for felons who have completed their sentences to seek restoration of their voting rights. Iowa’s restoration process is among the nation’s most onerous, with its impact falling disproportionately on blacks.
It would be a politically courageous gesture, and would underscore his vow to maintain rights for all.
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