Lawmakers discuss justice, minority issues
February 02, 2014 8:00 am • By Christinia Crippes
CEDAR FALLS |
The statistics laid before state Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, on Iowa’s increased incarceration rates, especially for young African-Americans, were not new to him.
But it did lead him to conclude that the state’s criminal justice system may be in need of a makeover.
“Yeah, we can be tough on crime, but my sense is we should be smart on crime,” said Kressig, ranking member of the House Public Safety Committee. “Corrections doesn’t mean 'close the door and throw the key away;' it’s the idea that they come back out and be productive.”
The first Black Hawk County legislative forum put on by the area’s League of Women Voters on Friday night wasted no time in touching on controversial issues. The prevalence of racism in communities and in the criminal justice system, the recent closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home and the legalization of medical marijuana were all touched upon by area lawmakers.
Local activist David Goodson suggested that racism played a part in how certain laws were crafted so that young black men were more likely to end up in prison. He pointed to the disparity between the punishments for possessing crack cocaine and powder cocaine, as well as the loss of jobs due to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Rep. Deborah Berry, D-Waterloo, said that kind of thinking is still playing a part in laws up for consideration at the Capitol. She pointed to a piece of legislation under consideration, House Study Bill 522, that would make it easier to convict and potentially increase the penalties for aiding and abetting in gang activity. She requested a minority impact statement on the bill and believes it will disproportionately impact young black men.
“There’s some things that we have to do better as a society, as a city, as a state,” Berry said, pointing to the high numbers of people incarcerated for drug offenses and those with mental illnesses.
Berry and the Rev. Chuck Lane, a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Waterloo, agreed that the increased numbers of people in prison is a community issue, not just a racial issue. Lane said he’s studied the issue for years and found that 30 years ago, the state’s prison population was 2,810; 20 years ago, it increased to 5,692; and in 2005, it was 8,577.
That number today has decreased some. The Iowa Department of Corrections lists the total incarcerated as 8,096 people, and overcrowded by almost 9 percent. There’s another 30,822 in community-based corrections.
To get smart about imprisonment, for drug or other nonviolent crimes, several reform advocates argued for early intervention; more drug treatment options; and funding for alternative court systems, like drug and family courts.
State Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, mentioned the impact of the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, saying it was a placement of last resort for many young women in the state. He said he disagreed with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s decision to close the home and rejected the idea that the lawmakers who sponsored a bill to reopen the facility, himself included, care more about the building than the young women in it.
He earned some applause for suggesting that young women in the state should have a facility much like young men do at the State Training School in Eldora.
State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said she appreciated the opportunity to hear from the IJH workers during a hearing at the Capitol last week, as well as the opportunity to visit with young women who had spent time at the facility.
On medical marijuana, Dotzler said a bill legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes would not pass the Legislature this year. He said, however, he now supports such legislation, after seeing it help a friend who passed away with cancer. Berry did not take a stance on it at the forum, though she noted that it helped her brother, as well.
Salmon, pointing to negative consequences of its uses in general, said she doesn’t see that the Legislature would want to consider legalization of any kind.