DES MOINES — Last year’s session brought historic change in the form of social justice legislation motivated by the latest national incident in which a Black man was killed by police while in custody.
Iowa state lawmakers from both major political parties pledged in that monumental moment that the legislation was a mere beginning in the discussion of racial and social justice.
They resume their work Monday for the 2021 session. Will they honor that pledge to keep the conversation moving?
“I don’t think anybody thinks our work here is done. I think when we advanced this legislation, everyone acknowledged it was a first step,” said Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats, from Coralville. “There’s certainly more work to do.”
The historic legislation passed last year included a ban on the use of police choke holds with some exceptions, required de-escalation and bias training, a ban on hiring officers who have been fired for misconduct or using excessive force, and clearance for the state attorney general to investigate cases when an officer’s actions resulted in an individual’s death.
Months later, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an executive order automatically restoring the voting rights of any Iowan who has been convicted of a felony and completed his or her sentence. Reynolds had spearheaded an effort to amend the state constitution, but that process derailed in the Republican-led Iowa Senate. So Reynolds issued her executive order shortly before the 2020 election.
Attempts at additional social justice legislation this year could include addressing racial profiling in policing, decriminalizing marijuana, and correcting disparities in the justice system.
Republicans hold majorities in both the Iowa Senate and House, so they set the legislative agenda.
“Our caucus has been working on (justice issues) for the last four years,” said Jack Whitver, leader of the majority Senate Republicans, from Ankeny. “The main thing is to modernize our criminal code so that it fits the 21st Century. … We’ve been trying to right-size that for a long time.”
Whitver and Pat Grassley, the Republican House Speaker from New Hartford, seemed to indicate they do not expect the felon voting issue to come up again this year. While advocates are pleased with the governor’s executive order, they would prefer a constitutional amendment, which is far more permanent than an executive order, which can be undone by the next governor.
Whitver and Grassley both said legislative Republicans would consider a proposal if Reynolds renews her advocacy for a constitutional amendment.
Reynolds declined an interview request for the bureau’s legislative preview series, breaking a long-standing tradition of the sitting governor meeting with Iowa reporters to discuss issues that might be addressed during the session and in the governor’s Condition of the State address in January. According to Reynolds’ staff, the change was due to an “unprecedented year” which has required the governor to concentrate on preparations for her January 12 Condition of the State speech and focus on Iowa’s COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution.
Instead of meeting individually with Iowa news organizations, the governor plans to attend a roundtable discussion with members of the Iowa Capitol Press Association this week as her pre-session media availability.
Reynolds established a committee to discuss further social justice proposals. The governor’s FOCUS committee was comprised of state officials, law enforcement officials, advocates, and other stakeholders, and its proceedings were led by Adam Gregg, Reynolds’ lieutenant governor and a former state public defender.
The committee met at least five times after last year’s session, and in October formulated a report with three recommendations, all of which fall under the umbrella of promoting unbiased policing: require and automate data collection on race and ethnicity from law enforcement stops; analyze and study the data, and provide annual reports on the findings; and ban disparate treatment in law enforcement activities and the delivery of police services.
“Race and other individual demographics simply shall not be a factor in police action outside of situations involving a description of a specific suspect, and Iowa law should reflect that principle,” the committee’s report says.
Whitver and Grassley said their members will consider the report’s recommendations.
“I’m confident our judiciary committee is taking a look at the lieutenant governor’s recommendations. We’ll sort through those,” Whitver said.
Wahls said he is hopeful lawmakers will give consideration to another report, filed in December by the state human rights department.
That report also recommends steps be taken to end racial profiling, but also recommends legislators examine policies designed to eliminate racial disparities in the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems, and in the use of excessive force on incarcerated Iowans.
“If we really want to talk about breaking the cycle of intergenerational injustice, I think taking some of those recommendations in their report is something that the Legislature should look at,” Wahls said.
Todd Prichard, leader of the minority House Democrats from Charles City, and an attorney by trade, said he is pleased the social justice discussion bore fruit with last year’s landmark law, and hopes for more production this year.
“I think it shows a commitment from both parties in the state that we are committed to justice in society in Iowa,” Prichard said. “As somebody who has worked in law enforcement as a prosecutor, the best way to make the streets safe for everyone, for the police and for the public, is to have and build relationships and trust amongst the public and police departments and (other) law enforcement agencies. …
“Because at the end of the day, when we address these types of things, we make the streets safer for our police officers and for the public. And that really should be everybody’s goal.”