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Panelists examine Iowa’s criminal justice issues; advocates say more change is needed to address disparities

Panelists examine Iowa’s criminal justice issues; advocates say more change is needed to address disparities

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Awareness of racial disparities and inequities in Iowa’s criminal justice system is growing but change is slow in coming in a state that is “Iowa nice” but has data that says otherwise, according to panelists who drilled into the issue Thursday during The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference.

Beth Skinner, director of the state Department of Corrections, said she, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg are committed to rooting out institutional policies that over time have created a situation where Iowa disproportionately incarcerates African Americans at a higher rate than many other states.

“Issues of disparities and inequities didn’t happen overnight,” Skinner said. “Disparities have been around a long time.

“There’s not a silver bullet to this. I am fully committed to address racial disparities and inequities in our system. It’s one of my key target priorities here in the next five years.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has triggered accelerated release policies that significantly lowered Iowa’s current prison population, Daniel Zeno of the ACLU of Iowa noted that the percentage of Iowa’s inmate count has remained around the same 25 percent level for African Americans in a state where they make up 4 percent of the overall population.

Zeno said Iowa needs to move away from a philosophy of using mass incarceration via the criminal legal system as “the primary and almost exclusive response to all kinds of social ills” and vexing mental health challenges. He proposed redefining some things as not criminal acts and “re-imagining a system that doesn’t say the response is call the police and then go to jail.”

He noted the United States incarcerates more people than other countries, so it should have the lowest crime rate and rank among the safest, “and yet that’s not true.”

Betty Andrews of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP said she is encouraged that more people are listening to concerns raised by racial minorities and are stepping forward to address inequities that have been spurred by high-profile deaths of Black victims at the hands of oftentimes white law enforcement officers.

“I think that one of the biggest civil rights tools that has ever been invented is the cellphone,” she said. “The fact that we can record video and people can actually see the death, unfortunately, of George Floyd, which kind of puts a mirror up to America and says that there is no way that we can deny this.

“The thing that the cellphone did was bring truth to Black voices and brown voices that had always been speaking but now with this video and things like that, people cannot deny what has happened,” added Andrews, who has served with Skinner on Reynolds’ FOCUS committee working on criminal justice reform recommendations.

She said Iowa achieved a “big victory” when Reynolds signed an executive order that will give “40,000 to 50,000 people the opportunity to vote after being incarcerated.” But Zeno said lawmakers need to take the next step in the process of amending the Iowa Constitution with the felon voting language.

Andrews also noted that Iowa has a law requiring a minority impact statement accompany any proposals that come before lawmakers, but there have been circumstances where negative impacts have been ignored in passing laws anyway. The challenge is overcoming America’s history of racial injustice, which is “the water that we swim in,” she said.

“Being able to dismantle the system that has benefited so many for years and years is something that people are uncomfortable with,” Andrews said, “and that this comfort is where we feel the challenges and the pushback when it comes to minority or disparate issues.”

Iowans will have an opportunity to delve deeper into the issues like unbiased policing, anti-racial profiling and financial inequities Oct. 29 at the Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities, she noted. More information on the virtual criminal justice reform event can be found at

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