Racial disparity is not going to be solved by building or not building a new jail

[Source: “Racial disparity is not going to be solved by building or not building a new jail,” Press Citizen, 1 May 2013, by Orlando Dial, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Iowa City.]

20130501we-orlando-dial-pastor-bethel-african-methodist-episcopal-church-iowa-city-ameI have worked on issues of disparities in the courts for years, starting in the 1980s when I was the president of the Black Hawk County NAACP and a commissioner with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

So this is not a new issue for me.

I see two separate issues:

No. 1: Is the current jail adequate? In terms of capacity, and in terms of safety for employees and for those serving time or awaiting trail (some of whom my be innocent).

If the current jail is not adequate, then we need a new one. The questions then become whether can we afford it and when.

If the jail is adequate, then we would not need a new one.

No. 2. The issue of racial disparity is not going to be solved by building or not building a new jail.

Addressing the issue of disparity must start at the point of contact; the officer on the scene is the starting point.

I think law enforcement officers have one of the few jobs in which you can expect to receive bodily harm, life-changing injury or death every day you report to work. So one-time workshops on cultural difference are not likely to solve the problem by themselves.

We must have people in the profession who look like the people being treated unfairly. They are the ones who can help other officers learn how to do the job better.

In other words we need more black officers in positions to teach their brothers and sisters in uniform how to do a better job.

Arrests, however, don’t decide what the final charges will be. That brings up questions about: What role does the judge play? What about the jury? How does or doesn’t the system point to racial disparity in its various parts.

A big new jail will not fix the problems with race in the judicial system. But neither will holding an inadequate jail hostage fix them.

Unfortunately, our country is not yet ready to have honest conversion about skin color and its impact on how we live. And as long as the nation’s capital city is named after a man who supported the enslavement of people based on skin color, we will have a long way to go.

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About the Author. Orlando Dial is the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Iowa City.

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