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Iowa Imprisons Blacks at Alarming Rate

Extreme racial disparities in Iowa’s sentencing patterns have put the state under scrutiny once again. Iowa has a population of about 3 million people. Only 2.3 percent, about 20,000, are black. Yet the incarceration for black Iowans is six times greater than their white counterparts.

A 1999 investigation by the Des Moines Register found that 1-in-12 black men were either in prison, on parole or on probation. This figure was so far above the national average that then Gov. Tom Vilsack commissioned a study of the problem. Current Gov. Chet Culver is now on the verge of implementing $9.7 million in budget reform to deal with the disparity. Budgeted programs would include measures like early childhood education, community-based corrections, drug abuse prevention and re-entry programs.
However, some feel that creating programs is not enough. Legislators, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court are taking another look at state and federal sentencing laws for certain drug offenses. Disparate laws and sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine has long been a hot topic for advocates of racial parity. But several years ago another drug, methamphetamine, entered the equation.

Methamphetamine has long been predominantly preferred by white drug users. When state and federal initiatives undertook to crack down on meth abuse state incarceration rates for whites rose rapidly. In 2004 Iowa locked up a record 917 white drug offenders. Then the federal government restricted the sale of pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make meth, and Iowa’s incarceration rate for whites plummeted to 619, almost 33 percent in 2007.

Conversely, 243 black drug offenders were incarcerated in 2007 compared to 167 imprisoned in 2004, a 46 percent increase.

“Iowa’s image of being tolerant is being shattered by these numbers said Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines. Ford is an advocate for changes in state and federal sentencing laws.
Ryan King of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. says that the trend to lock up blacks more frequently is not just happening in Iowa. “What you may be witnessing there may soon be replicated elsewhere and around the country.”

In 2004 Minnesota locked up 379 newly convicted black drug offenders and 806 white drug offenders. In 2007 the number for blacks increased to 428 while the number for whites dipped to 777.

King calls it “the bleeding edge of something really new in the drug war.”

Abraham Funchess, head of Iowa’s Commission on the Status of African Americans says the problem is too much talk and too little action. “What we need to do is shift the problem away from talking about our pain to start talking about our plan.”

To that end Funchess has drafted an action plan called Ongoing Covenant with Black Iowa. But if that plan does not address legally imposed racial profiling based on drugs of preference little is likely to change.

Source: Des Moines Register

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