Local statistics reflect a national trend

[Source: “Local statistics reflect a national trend,” Press Citizen, 1 May 2013, by Bob Elliott, a former member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and a former member of the Iowa City Council.]

Bob ElliottOne of the arguments against approving the referendum for a new justice center is the incarceration disparity in percentage of racial/ethnic minorities compared to whites.

For example, although Johnson County is roughly 5 percent black, in recent years the percentage of black inmates in the Johnson County Jail reportedly has reached around 40 percent.

Without a doubt, that’s a troubling statistic. It begs a thorough investigation to determine what it means and why. But those statistics prove only what the unequal percentage is. Not why it is.

Nationwide statistics provided by The Sentencing Project: Research and Advocacy for Reform reveal blacks incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites. And Hispanics at nearly double (1.8) the rate for whites. Across the nation there’s substantial variance in those incarceration rates, with highest “black-to-white rates” in the Northeast and Midwest.

Among the 50 states, embarrassingly, Iowa had the highest rate at 13.6 to 1, and Hawaii had the lowest at 1.9 to 1. Another point was that for the entire nation, over the past 30 years there was a 500 percent increase in total numbers jailed.

Is that a reflection on law enforcement or on our collective value system?

These are troubling data. At the local level, county and city officials need to make a thorough investigation into what they mean. And it needs to be done soon.

But the need for the justice center is now. It’s needed to protect civil rights, justice, security and safety of law enforcement officials, inmates and — certainly not least of all — the public, at the court house and jail facility. That’s basic public safety.

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About the Author. Bob Elliott is a former member of the Johnson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee and a former member of the Iowa City Council.

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