A national study released today ranks Iowa No. 1 in the nation in the ratio of blacks to whites in prison—a statistic that many advocates say underscores a failure to address one of the state’s most serious problems.
The study by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project found Iowa incarcerates blacks at a rate 13.6 times that for whites—more than double the national average. Across the country, blacks are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate for whites. Latinos are imprisoned at nearly double the rate for whites nationally.
The study by the criminal justice advocacy and research group recommended several remedies for all states, including drug sentencing reform, more judicial discretion in sentencing and better standards for indigent defense.
But black leaders say Iowa—which has been among the national leaders in the incarceration of black men for years—needs to make much more comprehensive changes. Reps. Ako Abdul-Samad and Wayne Ford, two of the state’s four black lawmakers, called for all Iowans to work together on the issue and for the Legislature to make the disproportion a top priority in 2008.
Ford said if community, corporate, religious and academic leaders focused with legislators on the problem as they have on other issues, “I would bet my career” the statistics would change. The Des Moines Democrat said he would like to see existing agencies work together more to help convicts transition out of the corrections system, get jobs and build more productive lives.
Abdul-Samad, who serves on the incarceration disproportion committee with Ford, said he thought the biggest areas to be addressed were the lack of availability of drug treatment through the courts, lack of job opportunities for minority youth, and racist sentencing practices in the state justice system. Past studies have shown, for example, that minority youth are detained far longer than whites.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses leave judges with little discretion. However, he said, many offenders get a lot of breaks—from police, probation officers, prosecutors and judges—before they wind up behind bars.
Although poverty plays a big part in criminal behavior, Sarcone said, no one winds up in prison for committing a simple drug offense. Sarcone also said he’d never seen an Iowa judge treat someone differently because of race.
“I don’t have any sympathy for those who get sent to prison,” he said, “because they are ruining their own communities and their own people.”
Just 2.3 percent of Iowa’s population is black, with the highest concentrations living in Black Hawk, Scott and Polk counties.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the findings of the new study, based on 2005 state prison and jail data, are particularly disturbing given that Iowa is not a high-crime state. No research, he said, suggests that blacks as a race are more likely to commit crimes than whites.
[Editors Note: “Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity,” by Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, can be read or downloaded here.]