Johnson County Iowa – Incarceration and Racial Disparity – Causes and Solutions

[Source: “Johnson County Iowa – Incarceration and Racial Disparity – Causes and Solutions,”, 1 April 2013, by Greg Johnson]

20130401mo-incarceration-news-640x480The justice system in Johnson County seems to be disproportionately arresting and incarcerating people simply on the basis of race. (Source: “Time to correct underlying causes of jail overcrowding,” Press Citizen, 31 March 2013) Once incarcerated, people of color are held longer than others. These statements are based on twelve years of research using large data sets compiled and analyzed by Professor John Neff.

This isn’t just a local trend. According to a Criminal Justice Fact Sheet from the NAACP:

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%

It’s hard to disagree about hard data and facts.

What people disagree on is the cause of racial disparity in the justice system.

  • Internal Causes. Some people conclude that the racial disparity in the justice system is almost entirely the fault of the justice system being internally racist in some way, and if we’ll just fix the justice system then the problem will be solved. This is the position of those opposed to building larger jails: “Fix the racially biased justice system first, and then you won’t need larger jails.” Or, similarly, “I’m not in favor of investing any tax payer money in a system that’s been proven to be racially biased.” Yet, the specifics of where racial unfairness exists and who is specifically at fault seem to be elusive. Who, specifically, are the people making racially biased decisions? What, specifically, are the laws that need to be changed? Are specific judges racially biased? Who, specifically, are the police officers who tend to focus their energy and attention on neighborhoods where people of color predominantly live? Who, specifically, are the police officers who use racial profiling (consciously or subconsciously) when deciding who to pull over?
  • External CausesIt’s highly unlikely that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to disproportionately arrest people of color and treat them unfairly. What’s more plausible is that we’ve created (or permitted) a racially biased and unfair social, economic, and political structure where people of color are discriminated against at foundational levels of education, employment, and opportunity — then, we act surprised when some of these disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people grow up, break some laws, and get arrested. Anyone coming from a difficult background, with limited means, is going to have less access to legal services, outside support, and bail money. This will, of course, make their situation worse.
  • Both Internal and External Causes. Of course, the answer is probably that both internal and external influences are resulting in the racial disparity we see in the justice system.

Finding Solutions. It’s easy to blame “the police” or “the justice system” for racial disparities. However, the problem isn’t as simple as correcting a failed justice system. The problem permeates our entire society. Blame shifting simply avoids addressing the real problems, and inhibits finding real solutions. The solutions are going to be found “way up stream” and not in a local jail or court system.

In Johnson County, Iowa, we’re not immune to the conditions described above. At present, we have a poorly equipped and overcrowded jail that’s placing a disproportionately high number of minorities in poor conditions. Overcrowding of the local jail has resulted in people getting shipped away to jails in other counties (away for family and services that could reduce recidivism). These logistical inefficiencies, along with an overburdened court system short on space, all result in delivering slower and poorer quality justice. By keeping a smaller jail locally, we’re doing nothing to “help” people of color. We’re only making their circumstances worse.

To start turning the tide, on May 7, vote YES for the Justice Center. Then, begin to give of your time and money to those who are disenfranchised. Provide financial support or education to those who need to be lifted out of cycles of poverty, drugs, crime, and violence. Vote for and support programs and initiatives that address root causes and not later outcomes. Most of all, offer compassion, hope, and understanding.


Further Commentary. Below are selected quotes from the discussion on Facebook.

“A conspiracy is a secret plan to use unlawful means to harm others. One of the outcomes of the criminal justice system is to knock people and their families down to the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Some people claim that this is the result of a conspiracy on the part of the “White Power Elite” to harm minorities. The criminal justice process is not secret and it is carried out by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. The judges are supposed to see that the process is carried out in a lawful manner. From a technical point of view the process is not a conspiracy but it does immense harm to all poor people that run afoul of the criminal justice system. The outcome is we are creating a permanent underclass. I consider this to be damage control problem that requires changes to the criminal justice system. What we have instead is a proposal to continue the policies of the past twenty years and provide more jail beds so we can incarcerate more members of the underclass.” – John Neff

“What most people agree on is that we are spending too much on incarceration, the jail is too small and had not been in compliance with jail standards since 1993 and by any objective measure the courthouse is inadequate. We disagree about what is the most cost effective solution. One cost effective approach is to reduce the length of stay in jail.” – John Neff

“John Neff. Thanks for your research. I agree that one way to reduce the number of people in jail would be to reduce the length of stay. One part of that length of stay would be addressed with the addition of courtrooms and staff in a new justice center. Have your studies ever looked at how many people in jail have mental health issues, what their level of education is, and how many suffer from poverty? I know that a new justice center would have space to address some of these issues. Thanks again.” ~ Scott Dole

“Mental health issues are confidential and are not part of the public record. Information about education and income level are not in the jail booking record. The degree of educational attainment can be part of the public record because it is in the prison roster and other public records. I have looked at employment status for people under community supervision and their unemployment rates are several times normal and many of them are on disability. One of the arguments about crime causation is about the importance of poverty. When you look at what happens to crime victims and criminals it clear than crime can cause poverty. It is very very difficult for someone convicted of a felony to get a decent job. If a victim is severly injured the crime can wreck the rest of their life.” – John Neff

“A new jail is part of the solution in that allows for many of the programs everyone seems to agree are needed and also cuts down on the outsourcing of inmates. As for the Chicago effect, it is real and it’s not just in Iowa City. It’s really not the Chicago effect…it’s the Big Urban Area effect. It just so happens that Chicago is where most of our urban influx comes from. It’s a matter of people coming from a very different sociological and law enforcement environment. Things that are no big deal in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City (just to name places where some of my clients have come from) are a big deal here, but the offenders either don’t realize it or think they can get away with it. One client from Cleveland said he couldn’t believe he got arrested for two ounces of pot because back home, the cops would just take it away and send him on his way. He was white, by the way. People who see themselves as little fish in big ponds back home come here and see themselves as big fish in little ponds, whether they came from the hood and think they need to carry a piece or they came from the burbs and think it’s okay to deal 20s with coke folded into them.” ~ Tim Schemmel


Clarification. The above article does not intend to suggest that there is no racial bias in the justice system or that incidents of racial profiling or police brutality against people of color don’t exist. These are real problems, but perhaps less influential than the social conditions described above.

Document Reach. As of April 14, in the two weeks since posting, this article had reached over 5,400 people. Thanks to everyone who has helped promote the article and provide us feedback. Below are maps showing recent page visitors. Click on a map to zoom in.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Commentary


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

%d bloggers like this: