Proposals to lower the numbers of African-Americans in Iowa prisons fail to address the racism some blacks believe is contributing to the disparities and don’t offer any immediate solutions, activists and others said.
“I’m tired of people faking like they don’t know what the problem is,” said Zorana Wortham-White, a Waterloo attorney. “Everybody needs to realize — even Governor [Chet] Culver — that this is happening because it’s racism. Period.”
Iowa leads the nation for imprisoning blacks at a rate 13.6 times that of whites, according to a national study by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. Blacks account for just 2.3 percent of Iowa’s population but 25 percent of its prison population.
A committee Culver convened recommended spending $4.3 million on early-childhood education; $3.12 million on offender re-entry programs; $1.25 million on community-based correctional programs and $1 million on substance abuse and mental health programs.
Ryan King, a policy analyst with the Sentencing Project, said the proposals are encouraging, but don’t go far enough.
“The single biggest thing that can be done is to revisit the sentencing laws that exist to determine who is brought into the criminal justice system to begin with,” King said.
Iowa needs a “wholesale” evaluation of sentencing laws to determine if punishments are proportionate to offenses, King said. He also said Iowa should figure out which laws are sending people to prison the most and identify people who might be eligible for alternative programs.
“Looking to see if community sanctions rather than custody sanctions might be appropriate,” King said.
Abraham Funchess, division administrator for the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans, served on Culver’s committee. The commission is spending $200,000 this year on an effort called the Ongoing Covenant with Black Iowa, to study and improve the lives of blacks in 10 cities.
“We need to change the law here in Iowa to give our judges more judicial discretion to incorporate individual circumstances in the sentencing decisions,” Funchess said. “If we can make changes in these areas, I believe that we will be able to make a more immediate impact on reducing the disparities here in Iowa.”
The proposals, which are being reviewed by Culver’s office, make no mention of racism or cultural competence or sensitivity training for law enforcement personnel, which surprised and troubled some community activists.
“I believe money should have gone into law enforcement to attract minority and women officers,” said Jerald Brantley, who is publisher of the Iowa Bystander, the state’s largest black newspaper.
Wortham-White said law enforcement should have topped the list.
“One of the solutions is to get a police environment where you can have more African-Americans feel comfortable on the police force and not have to deal with a whole bunch of racism while they’re on the police force…” she said.
David Goodson, founder of Social Action Inc., a Waterloo agency that helps black male adolescents with life skills and employment, said the state can’t continue to do the same thing and expect different results. He said the goal of spending money on early-childhood education is great but does nothing to fix immediate problems.
“Whether or not people end up going to prison 18 years later, that is a byproduct of early education funding,” Goodson said. “We need something that is more immediate that’s going to take hold right now. Overnight.”
Zorana Wortham-White agreed.
“I’m really, really confused as to how that is even hitting at the problem,” Wortham-White said. “To put that much money towards an early-childhood education program as opposed to your community-based correctional programs is ridiculous.”
Reverend Keith Ratliff Sr., is the NAACP state conference president. He said the group met with Culver last month to discuss the issue.
“I know because of the high visibility of this issue some people are looking for quick fixes and quite frankly quick fixes may look good on paper, but what our state needs are some short term and long term goals that continue to address and reduce this disproportionate rate and to have checks and balances in place to keep this disproportionate rate once reduced from reoccurring and reoccurring,” Ratliff said.
He said the NAACP reviewed the issue of plea bargains and believes a study should be conducted comparing the plea bargains that blacks accept with those of whites.
“It seemed to suggest that African-Americans are being offered and accepting too many plea bargains, which on the surface may give a person a reduced charge or sentence, yet it is an admission of guilt and will follow this person for years if not their whole life,” he said. “Do these individuals really understand the full ramifications of plea bargaining?”
Goodson, of Waterloo, is pushing for more community-based correctional programs. He held a forum last month in Waterloo about the racial disparities in the prison system. He said society needs to rethink imprisoning nonviolent offenders, a change that could help lower the numbers of blacks in prison.
“I’m not saying that a nonviolent offender should never go to prison. I’m simply saying that nonviolent offenders should be sentenced to drug court, substance-abuse programs, to work release, to residential facilities and on and on and on,” he said.
He said imprisoning nonviolent offenders is “criminalizing bad behavior.”
“Most people think that prison is the only form of punishment for criminal behavior or bad behavior,” he said. “But probation is a form of punishment; ankle bracelets are a form of punishment, [being] court-ordered to various programs is a form of punishment when you don’t want to go.”
The feedback Funchess has received through the Ongoing Covenant with Black Iowa project is that not enough money is being spent on community-based alternatives to prison.
The Sentencing Project recommends that policymakers consider strategies to reduce the disparities, including ensuring that defendants have high-quality representation and requiring a racial-impact study for any new laws that concern prisons.
Culver’s committee studied a 2001 report that was commissioned by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, which stated: “The residents and policy-makers in this state must recognize that the issues identified in this report grow deeper and become more costly each year that they are left unchecked.” The report can be found at http://www.doc.state….
Brantley, who is also executive director of Spectrum Resources which provides re-entry programs, agreed. He applauded the committee for developing budget proposals instead of just more ideas. But, doubts loom.
“Are the recommendations going to sit there and die like the other report?” he said.
Wortham-White questions whether the proposals — assuming they are implemented and financed — will have any real impact at all.
“The problems go a lot deeper than this and go way beyond the suggestions that the committee made,” she said. “It’s not happening by accident. This is being directed at black people.”