[Source: ” Arrest, jail stats show racial disparity in Johnson County, Officials say the imbalance is more complex than race and is not unique to Johnson County,” Press Citizen, 30 August 2013, by Josh O’Leary]
The numbers are black and white, but the solutions are anything but.
The percentage of black inmates in the Johnson County Jail last year was more than four times greater than that of the county’s overall black population, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.
Those arrested for marijuana possession in Johnson County in 2010 were eight times more likely to be black than white, nearly double the national average, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study.
And in Johnson County, significantly more black juvenile offenders are placed in detention than white juveniles, who are given probation at a much greater rate, according to the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.
Inside City Hall, at rallies on the pedestrian mall and in the debate over a proposed new county jail, the conversation about racial disparity in the criminal justice system has heightened in recent months. A group called the Coalition for Racial Justice issued a report last month calling local disparity issues “significant and troubling,” while earlier this year the Ad-Hoc Diversity Committee, established by the Iowa City Council, issued a series of recommendations to improve relations between the city and minority community.
Some see the disproportionate arrest numbers as evidence of police profiling and a systematic bias — a charge Iowa City’s police chief adamantly disputes. Others point more to the array of socioeconomic factors that contribute to crime. All agree it’s a complex and sensitive issue.
LaTasha Massey, co-chairwoman of the Coalition for Racial Justice and a member of the Ad-Hoc Diversity Committee, said that as Johnson County becomes more diverse — its black population has more than doubled since 2000 — disparity issues have become more pronounced.
“I think for a long time disproportionality and disparity were buzzwords,” Massey said. “But now we’re able to pinpoint it and point it out, which has brought it to the forefront more because people are now able to see it. Before it had been a national and statewide issue; now it’s more of a local issue.”
Shams Ghoneim, president of the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the Iowa City Human Rights Commission, said that even with this week marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, disparity locally and nationally shows much work is left to be done.
“This is an issue that really is basic to all Americans,” said Ghoneim, who also serves on the Press-Citizen’s Editorial Board. “The question is, why is there such a huge disparity?”
At the Johnson County Jail — the population of which has been scrutinized in the debate surrounding a twice-defeated justice center referendum — 23.3 percent of the inmates booked in 2012 were black, according to data provided by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. By comparison, black residents make up 5.1 percent of Johnson County’s population.
When the duration of the stay in the county jail is taken into account, 42 percent of the beds are used by black inmates, said retired University of Iowa professor John Neff, who studies local jail data. That’s because black inmates are, on average, staying longer in the county jail than whites, Neff said.
The high disparity rate isn’t unique to the Johnson County Jail. In Iowa’s nine prisons, 26 percent of offenders were black, according to 2012 Department of Corrections data, while Iowa’s overall black population is 3.2 percent.
At the Polk County Jail, which booked almost three times as many people than Johnson County in 2012, 22.7 percent were black offenders. Polk County’s general population is 6.4 percent black.
A snapshot look at two large Eastern Iowa counties indicates similar disparity issues among jail populations. At the Linn County and Scott County jails, where annual numbers weren’t readily available, black inmates made up 38 percent and 43 percent of the populations on a recent day last month, respectively. Black residents make up 4.2 percent of Linn County’s overall population and 7.3 percent of Scott County’s.
“I don’t think as a community we have been proactive in positive ways about responding to the change in demographics over the last decade or so,” said Dorothy Whiston, an Iowa City pastor and a member of the Coalition for Racial Justice.
Whiston added: “I think it’s nationally a huge issue — what our criminal justice system has become, in terms of social control of the black community nationwide. And I think it’s one of the areas that reflects the overall racial disparities. People who end up in the prison system end up being second-class citizens for life if they’ve been convicted of a felony.”
In its recent report, the Coalition for Racial Justice also highlighted the disproportionate number of arrests and contacts made by Iowa City Police. Of the non-traffic arrests made by the ICPD in 2011, 28 percent were of black residents. And almost 13 percent of all traffic stops involved black drivers, according to the study.
“We’ve been looking at it for a number of years and we’ll continue to look at it,” ICPD Capt. Richard Wyss said of disparity in arrest numbers. “There’s a number of different of factors that are involved in it. And I can’t say we’ve found a solution, but it’s a very complex issue.”
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa released a report showing that a black person in Iowa is 8.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person — the highest of any state and higher than the national number of 3.7. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, Johnson had the third-highest rate, also at 8.3 times more likely.
Ghoneim said she thinks biases and profiling are issues in Johnson County as they are everywhere in the U.S. But she said that socioeconomic factors and education levels also are among the many factors that are tied to the higher incarceration rates for minorities.
“It has to do with salaries. It has to do with opportunities. It has to do with education,” Ghoneim said. “If you have an individual who cannot get out of a hole of being economically depressed that they did not necessarily create, and cannot get out and improve their education or their work skills to become more employable, that can also play into some communities’ biases.”
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said it’s easy for some to flip to the last page of a report and say, “Ah ha, I told you the police were profiling.” But Hargadine said that ignores the “thousand social issues that go with that.”
Hargadine said the ICPD has for years been a lead participant in the local Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee and has been active in local conversations about the issue. At the same time, he said, police must respond to requests for help and investigate, regardless of what prompts those calls.
“There are times when people call us, because of what they deem as suspicious — that when you look at it may be prejudicial,” Hargadine said. “But don’t blame the police because we got the call.”
A March study conducted by the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning showed that more black juveniles in Johnson County were referred to juvenile court than white juveniles in 2012 — 304 and 303, respectively — despite the Iowa City area being home to nearly eight times as many white juveniles.
And among those offenders, black youths faced charges and required secure detention more often — 63 cases involving black youths compared with 43 cases involving white youths. White youths also had their cases diverted more than black youths and were placed on probation at a greater rate.
Frederick Newell, a community liaison for the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County and founder of the Dream Center, said disparity issues for youths extend beyond the criminal justice system.
“I know how minority students are viewed in our community, and a lot of times it’s a negative view,” said Newell, who was among the community activists on hand in July at a ped mall rally calling for racial justice in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. “And that’s not even just from the police, it’s from community members, from staff at the school, principals.
“So I hate just focusing on the police — that’s not the only issue. I feel like the police do what other people ask them to do. I look at the community all together and not just part of the community.”
While the new data brings local disparity issues into focus, solutions are less clear.
The Coalition for Racial Justice has recommended establishing a roundtable to address equity and disparity issues, encouraging more minorities to take part in civic boards and commissions, and using equity assessment tools to scrutinize practices and formulate strategies.
Among the many recommendations laid out in the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ report about juvenile disparity is the need for more diverse leadership in Johnson County, and it encouraged a discussion between officials regarding juvenile arrests and juvenile court referrals for low-level offenses.
The Ad-Hoc Diversity Committee earlier this year laid out recommendations to the City Council, many of which were approved, though some critics argue the measures aren’t going far enough. The law enforcement recommendations called on police to engage in more community projects, invite more citizens on ride-alongs and explore a training academy for youth.
On Oct. 17, the Human Rights Commission is hosting a conference and forum at the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center focusing on racial justice. Disproportionate incarceration rates will be a key topic, Ghoneim said.
Also in October, a contingent of local leaders will attend a program at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform aimed at reducing racial and ethnic disparities among youths. Massey, along with representatives from the ICPD, Iowa City Community School District, Juvenile Court Services and a district court judge will attend and will create a set of actions to implement in the community designed to initiate or continue efforts to reduce racial disparity.
“It’s certainly a concern to me and something we’re looking at,” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said. “There’s no easy explanation, and there’s probably no easy solution, but it’s something we’re very concerned and are looking at.”
Said Newell: “The more and more people talk about these issues, it shines a light on things that need to be changed here in Iowa City.”
Reach Josh O’Leary at 887-5415 or email@example.com.