The Color of Justice report

The cover page of The Sentencing Project's report, "The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons."


DES MOINES — Nearly a decade after a national report showed Iowa had some of the highest rates of racial disparities in its jails and prisons, updated figures show the state has made slight improvements but still ranks among the worst in the U.S.

The good news is racial disparity among Iowa’s inmates has improved since that first report.

The numbers just haven’t improved enough to move Iowa out of the bottom few states in the nation.

Iowa made modest gains in key metrics measured by The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization that, according to its website, advocates for “a fair and effective criminal justice system.”

Iowa has the fourth-most black inmates per capita in the country, according to The Sentencing Project’s newest report, which was published this summer.

That represents the slightest of improvement from the group’s 2007 report, in which Iowa had the third-highest rate of black inmates per capita.

In the new report, Iowa has the nation’s third-highest ratio of black-to-white inmates, a small improvement from 2007 when Iowa led the nation in the statistic.

Only 3 of every 100 Iowans is black, but 1 of every 4 Iowa prisoners is black, according to the report.

“I think that the numbers indicate that it’s a systemic problem, that it’s not like there’s just one issue,” said Russell Lovell, a retired Drake University law school professor who works with the Iowa and Nebraska branch of the NAACP. “You don’t get the rankings that Iowa has without having broad-based, systemic issues. I’m certainly confident that African-Americans in Iowa are not more crime-prone than they are in other states. I can’t buy that argument.”

The good news is Iowa’s inmate disparity numbers did improve.

The new report shows Iowa has 2,349 black prisoners for every 100,000; that’s a 44 percent decrease from the 4,200 per 100,000 in the 2007 report.

Iowa’s ratio of 11.1 black prisoners for every one white prisoner also is an improvement; that’s down 18 percent from the nation-worst 13.6 in the 2007 report.

“It’s good to see that we have scratched the surface, and we definitely believe it is a scratch,” said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa and Nebraska branch of the NAACP. “But if we are scratching the surface, it is good to see those numbers moving in the right direction.”

That modest improvement comes despite statewide attention that has been paid to the issue in recent years. Since the 2007 report:

• Multiple advocacy groups have pitched solutions to and worked with state leaders.

• The Iowa Supreme Court’s chief justice highlighted the issue in his past two annual addresses to the Iowa Legislature.

• Gov. Terry Branstad in 2015 convened a work group to develop recommendations.

“As Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward justice,” Andrews said. “We are hoping we’re seeing the bending of that arc.”

The Sentencing Project’s report lists possible contributors to racial disparities in jails and prisons: criminal justice policies and practices, human bias and structural disadvantages faced by minority populations.

Iowa leaders have taken incremental steps to address its high racial disparity levels among inmates.

The state’s nonpartisan legislative analysis agency produces minority impact reports for any legislation that could have an effect on minority communities. And this year, the state passed into law a package of criminal justice reforms that gave judges more sentencing flexibility for some low-level drug crimes and a measure that makes private the juvenile records of some nonviolent offenders.

But lawmakers have not agreed to other recommendations from the governor’s work group and other advocates who suggest ways to diversify jury pools and pass legislation to ban employers from asking job applicants if they have been convicted of a felony and to monitor racial profiling by law enforcement officers.

Lovell said the racial profiling legislation is critical. He noted an NAACP study that showed Iowa is one of 20 states without any racial profiling laws and an American Civil Liberties Union study that showed that while whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rate, blacks in Iowa are more than eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites.

“That study is a really powerful indication, we believe, of the racial profiling here in Iowa,” Lovell said. “And that’s where it starts: You get arrested and you get into the system. … So, that legislation is really an important piece.”

Proponents of ban-the-box legislation, which prevents employers from asking job seekers about their criminal history, say such laws eliminate a significant hurdle for former prisoners trying to find employment.

“Studies show that after a certain amount of time, the people who have committed a crime are no more likely than the general population to commit a crime,” Andrews said. “Here they are, 30 years later, 20 years later, and they’re still not able to get a job in the field they would like to be in.”

Lovell said the inability of released inmates to find a job can create a revolving door at jails and prisons.

“When ex-offenders come out, if they can’t find work because no one will hire an ex-offender, then the likelihood of recidivism will increase,” he said.

Andrews said she and other advocates will continue to work with state leaders on these and other potential methods of reducing racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system. She said education is important, as is continuing the conversation that has built in recent years. For example, in a few weeks, the Des Moines branch of the NAACP will host the fourth annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities.

Her hope is that with continued education and attention, the state’s criminal justice disparity numbers will continue to improve, perhaps even at a faster rate.

“Our goal is always to try to talk and help people — and that includes our state’s highest officials — understand the impact of maybe outdated practices and policies and legislation (that impacts) people of all colors,” Andrews said. “Because that gap is at a crisis level, and it just needs to be addressed.”