Iowa still among worst states for racial disparities in incarceration

Iowa is tied for seventh among states with the highest disparities in Black incarceration rates, according to new analysis from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Data released on September 27 show Black Iowans are about nine times more likely than whites to be in prison or jail, and Native Americans are about thirteen times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Iowa.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said in a statement that the findings “underscore the need for systemic reform.” She called on Iowa to “take action in every facet of the justice process.”

Approximately 17,000 Iowans are incarcerated, the Prison Policy Initiative’s Iowa fact sheet shows, roughly half in state prisons and most of the rest in county jails or federal prisons. As in many states, the per capita incarceration rate has grown over the past 40 years. But Iowa has long been among the worst for racial disparities in the criminal justice system, across various metrics.

The latest research includes this graphic showing ratios of Black and white incarceration rates in all 50 states. Iowa is part of a cluster of states, including neighboring Nebraska and Minnesota, where Blacks are about nine times more likely than whites to be in jail or prison.

Note that across the Midwest, racial disparities in the incarceration rate are higher than the national average (six times higher incarceration rate for Blacks than for whites). Although the percentage of the population in jails or prisons is generally higher across the South than in the Midwest, the racial disparities in the incarceration rate tend to be less pronounced in southern states.

Drilling into the Iowa data, the Prison Policy Initiative notes that while about 84 percent of Iowans are white, only 64 percent of people incarcerated are white. In contrast, Blacks comprise about 4 percent of Iowa’s population but 25 percent of the incarcerated population. The disparity is also extremely high for American Indians or Alaska Natives, who make up only 0.2 percent of Iowa’s population but about 2 percent of those in prison or jail.

Here’s another visualization of the data, which better reflects the massive disparities in the incarceration rates for Black Iowans and Native Americans. Latinos are also more likely to be incarcerated than white Iowans, though the ratio is smaller.

ACLU of Iowa executive director Mark Stringer said the new data “show once again that our state is failing to treat all Iowans equally under the law.” He noted, “The cards are stacked against Black Iowans in our legal system every step of the way” and cited a 2020 national study by the ACLU, which ranked Iowa “fifth-worst in the nation in racial disparities for marijuana arrests.”

The Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities will explore many of these challenges and potential solutions at its upcoming all-day event in Ankeny on November 3.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s previous research has highlighted “the high cost of being incarcerated in Iowa.” The new fact sheet lists key findings, with links to earlier reports:

Iowa’s incarceration rate for women is close to the national average, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s data.

Top illustration of African American person behind bars uses a model and is by LightField Studios, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • mighty White

    thanks for pulling these facts together, Omaha was the most segregated city I’ve ever lived in (and I lived in Memphis) and Iowa City isn’t much better (hard to get pulled over for actual moving violations in IC but don’t drive downtown while black/brown, and don’t be drunk in public on the ped mall if you’re not white and well off), would be good to know the historical trends my guess is that these systemic issues run thru regardless of the party in power at the time but I may well be wrong. Any hope of yer colleagues in the press picking up on this grim reality next time a Repug denies systemic racism in our state (not to mention the country) and at least including it in their reporting if not actually pushing back against such dangerous lies?

  • some commit more crimes than other

    There are good and bad in all races, however some races commit a much higher rate of crime than others. I believe poverty and culture is a major factor for those who are committing the majority of the crimes.

    • immoderate use of stereotypes?

      leaving aside that races are social/political categories and so not that kinds of things that have morals or moral features (“good and bad”) , there are in fact no races that “commit a much higher rate of crime than others” just as there aren’t criminal cultures of races, yes people forced to live in poverty are more likely to resort to crime to make up for the lack of other social supports.
      CUNY prof. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work on organized abandonment is very good on this subject.

    • the data show

      that Black people are more likely to be arrested than white people for certain crimes, more likely to be charged with serious crimes, more likely than white people to be convicted, and more likely to receive a longer sentence for the same crimes. Those are all factors.

      Black and white Iowans use marijuana at similar rates but Black people are about seven times more likely to be arrested and charged.