The massive racial disparities in Iowa's criminal justice system have long been recognized as among the worst in the country, spurring calls to action not only by advocacy groups but also by Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady and even Governor Terry Branstad.
Yet a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch shows that African-American adults in Iowa are seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession--an imbalance second only to Montana.
The ACLU/Human Rights Watch findings point to a nationwide problem with institutional racism in enforcement of drug laws:
The disparities in absolute numbers or rates of arrests cannot be blamed on a few states or jurisdictions. While numerous studies have found racial disparities in marijuana arrests,84 analyses of state- and local-level data provided to Human Rights Watch show consistent disparities across the country for all drugs, not just marijuana.
In every state for which we have sufficient police data, Black adults were arrested for drug possession at higher rates than white adults, and in many states the disparities were substantially higher than the national rate—over 6 to 1 in Montana, Iowa, and Vermont.85
Here's Figure 7 from that report. Note that the difference in the arrest rate between blacks and whites in Iowa is more than twice as large as that observed in more than two dozen other states.
The Iowa court system has been training judges and staff "to recognize implicit biases that may contribute to racial disparities" and supported pilot projects to keep some at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system. Better training in local police departments could reduce some of the racial disparity in the arrest rate.
Elected leaders could take helpful action at the state level, if they had the political will. Kathy Bolten reported for the Des Moines Register on October 20,
The ACLU/Human Rights Watch report called on the state Legislature to make drug possession a misdemeanor or ticketable offense, regardless of the quantity or weight of drugs found on a suspect or the number of previous convictions a suspect has had for the offense.
In addition, the groups want those convicted of a drug possession charge to face no prison time.
Currently in Iowa, most first-time drug-possession offenders are charged with a serious misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to one year in prison and fines of nearly $2,000. Repeat offenders face stiffer penalties. [...]
Currently, about 1,600 Iowa prison inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses. Nearly 27 percent are black, according to Iowa Department of Corrections data. About 4 percent of Iowans are black.
Iowa Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said she would welcome a review of Iowa laws on drug possession and delivery. She said there is some bipartisan legislative support to look at the issue in 2017.
Lopsided enforcement of drug laws isn't the only reason a disproportionate number of African-Americans are in the Iowa prison system. Mandatory minimum sentences for other crimes, such as robbery, also contribute to the problem.
Iowa permanently disenfranchises virtually all people with felony convictions; only a small fraction of 1 percent of affected individuals have regained their voting rights over the last five years. For that reason, racial disparities in drug arrests reverberate decades later, disproportionately reducing the political power of Iowa's African-American community (about 109,000 people).
Last year, the third annual Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities led to a Governor’s Working Group on Justice Policy Reform, which made a bunch of worthy recommendations. Iowa lawmakers ignored almost all of them in 2016. I'm not optimistic that steps to make the justice system more fair will receive any serious attention in the legislature next year, though I would love to be proven wrong. I greatly appreciate Wolfe's leadership on this issue and on felon voting rights. As a criminal defense attorney, she is far more familiar with the justice system than are most of her peers in the Iowa House or Senate.
UPDATE: The Des Moines Register's editorial board wrote on October 24,
How many more reports and statistics will it take to persuade lawmakers to finally take action?
They should begin by doing what several other states have done: pass legislation to ban racial profiling by law enforcement. Last session, legislators failed to further a bill that would have prohibited profiling, required officer training related to discriminatory policing and ensured data about police stops was collected and analyzed. Iowa would finally have information about how often and why minorities are detained by police, which is obviously important considering how often minorities are arrested.
As history has repeatedly shown, equal and fair treatment of individuals doesn’t just happen on its own. Sometimes the law must require it. Sometimes the law must be used to send a message that bias and discrimination will not be tolerated. The law may be the only way to prompt changes in practices and attitudes. Considering Iowa's embarrassing ranking on racial disparities in drug possession arrests, such changes are obviously needed.