By Keenan Crow
Some say President Obama’s re-election marks the beginning of a new era because he was re-elected not as the “first black president” but just as another president. This to many Americans is proof that race relations in this country have improved drastically since the Jim Crow laws that permeated society until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It is certainly a major step forward but it is no panacea. There are still laws in Iowa that promote structural racism.
Iowa’s jails are the most racist in the nation. The Sentencing Project calculated the incarceration rate of African Americans to be 13.6 times higher than whites. The Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning agency within Iowa verifies that, while African Americans make up only 3.1 percent of the general population in Iowa, they account for 25.2 percent of the prison population.
Admittedly, myriad factors play a role, such as poverty and lower educational attainment. These are societal problems for which it is difficult to locate and remedy the root cause. There is one major driver of this, however, which has been identified and can be easily remedied: the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity in Iowa Code 124.401. It allows for a lower threshold in order to obtain a maximum sentence for crack vs. powder cocaine. An individual in possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine would get the same sentence as someone with only 50 grams of crack cocaine. Because this is essentially the same drug (powder cocaine is the active ingredient in crack cocaine), the law makes little sense.
Crack does not create more violence than powder cocaine, it is no more addictive than powder cocaine, and mandatory minimum sentences for these offenders do not mean that they are less likely to reoffend. Indeed they are more likely to reoffend if given a mandatory minimum sentence (50 percent recidivism rate compared to 35 percent for those who had the requirement waived). The only practical effect of the law: African Americans accounted for 83 percent of new prison admissions for crack cocaine in Iowa for fiscal year 2010. So we are giving longer sentences for a drug because of who uses it, not because of what it is.
Not only is this a shameful blemish on Iowa’s civil rights record, it is costing the state money unnecessarily. With Iowa’s prisons already overcrowded, we cannot afford to house additional inmates for nonsensical reasons. Iowa is one of only 12 states that still have such a law.
We need to reject it. Contact your legislators.
Keenan Crow has been involved with several Iowa non-profit agencies and is attending the University of Northern Iowa for his Masters of Public Policy. He is a member of Cedar Valley Citizens for Undoing Racism, a community organization that addresses all aspects of racism. Comments; firstname.lastname@example.org