Iowa Considering Racial Impact in Sentencing Laws

Farai Chideya talks with Iowa Governor Chet Culver about a new law, which requires lawmakers to consider the impact proposed sentencing laws have on racial and ethnic groups in Iowa. It applies to crime, parole and probation issues.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Less than a year ago, a national report by the Sentencing Project found Iowa has the highest rate of racial disparity among inmates of any state. Currently, two percent of Iowa's population is black while 24 percent of its prison population is black. Just last month, Iowa became the first state to pass legislation that would require state officials to examine the racial and ethnic impact of new criminal justice policies. States, including Connecticut and Illinois, are considering similar laws. Joining me now is Iowa's governor, Chet Culver. Thanks for coming on.

Governor CHET CULVER (Democrat, Iowa): It's my pleasure, good to be with you, thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Were you surprised by the findings that your state had this racial disparity in sentencing?

Governor CULVER: Absolutely. This is a distinction that we don't want, in terms of being first in the nation in the ratio of African-Americans in prison. And it's my goal as the new governor to take this head-on and address it. And we have taken a number of important steps to trying to figure out the root cause. And as long as I'm governor, we will continue to make that a high priority.

CHIDEYA: Why is it important for you to put this issue front and center?

Governor CULVER: Well, historically, Iowa has actually been a leader on the issue of civil rights. In fact, we were one of the very first states to assure African-Americans the right to vote. So we - despite this distinction that we have right now - historically, we've been very progressive. And it's my hope that we can address this challenge and get back to leading the way in terms of opportunity and fairness and equality for all of our citizens.

CHIDEYA: What are you seeing in Iowa in terms of patterns within this pattern? Meaning, are there certain crimes that are more likely to show evidence of disparity between who's convicted than others? Are - what are the hot spots for you within this issue that you are addressing?

Governor CULVER: Very generally speaking, you've got to look at everything from the courtrooms, the sentencing guidelines to the classification, in terms of where these individuals go once they enter the corrections system. We're working on things at the back-end, in terms of preparing Iowans as they re-enter society. You know, one of the obvious challenges that I think we can address right now is that we have on a given day in Iowa three to four hundred prisoners that have done their time, but we have difficulties placing them and finding employment opportunities and housing arrangements. So they're literally stuck, in some cases, in the system when they should be out. And that's an area where I am trying to move very, very aggressively to figure out how we can break that logjam. I mean, that's a very obvious place to start.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask a little bit more about the minority impact statement that you mentioned this new law has. Now, this law doesn't apply to statutes that are already on the books, but ones that are going to be considered or implemented in the future. Is that correct?

Governor CULVER: That is correct. It means that when members of the general assembly in Iowa and executive branch are considering legislation in the future, they will be able to have a much better understanding of the potential effects, both positive and negative, on Iowa's minority communities. For example, if you have a law that requires a certain sentence for a certain type of crime, we want to know roughly what impact that will have on minority communities throughout the state. What impact it will have on our criminal justice system, or the Department of Corrections.

How many people, perhaps, could go to jail as a result and for how long? Because we've all learned that, you know, building prisons is not the answer, it's got to be a more comprehensive approach. And I think Iowa's proud of the fact that, despite some areas where we have a lot of work to do, this is a huge step forward in terms of good public policy that will help us, I think, a great deal in the future.

CHIDEYA: What about people who say, look, if you did the crime, you do the time, no matter what, no matter who? Why is this kind of a bill even on the table? Or why was this kind of law passed, rather?

Governor CULVER: I think people still do believe that if you commit a crime and break the laws in this state, there will be consequences. But I think it's just a smart, kind of common sense approach that will more likely than not help us govern more effectively and make us pause and think about the impact that certain types of legislation might have on minority communities across our state. And I think given the fact that we are leading the nation in terms of having 24 percent of Iowa's prison population consisting of African-Americans, with just two percent of Iowa's general public being African-American, suggests we need to do something a little bit differently. And I think this bill will help us, as they say, in the future.

CHIDEYA: You come from a political legacy. Your father represented Iowa in the House of Representatives and then in the U.S. Senate. And having seen what you have of government, what would you like to see the federal government do, if anything, to try to insert itself into this whole question of racial disparities in the prison population?

Governor CULVER: Perhaps we can partner with Congress to encourage them to take some steps like the one that we've taken here at the federal level. Number two, I think it's really about equality and fairness and not being afraid to acknowledge that there are problems and there are challenges, and having the political courage, whether it's here at the State House in Iowa or in Washington, D.C., to admit that we've got some real discrepancies out there, and they're not going to change unless we are willing to admit that we've got some problems. Perhaps the next president can provide us with some real leadership on this issue. And I know that Iowa lawmakers stand ready to partner with the next president or Congress to figure out how we can work together to address these same concerns that we have in Iowa and across the nation.

Let me just add that, you know, I think the bottom line here, the other way we're addressing this issue is through education. We are focusing on becoming the first state in the nation to offer universal preschool to every four-year-old. We're on our way to doing that. We're also taking some very aggressive steps in terms of healthcare. And we hope to be the first state in the nation to cover every child in terms of healthcare. So there are quality-of-life steps that we believe we can take that will, long-term also, reduce the number of all Iowans of all different races that are incarcerated. I really believe that, as a former government teacher and coach, that education and healthcare are the great equalizers in terms of helping people achieve their hopes and dreams.

CHIDEYA: Well, Governor, thanks so much.

Governor CULVER: My pleasure. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Iowa Governor Chet Culver. He recently signed into law a bill that will require law-makers to look at the impact that new sentencing laws could have on racial and ethnic group. The new requirement applies to crime, parole and probation issues, and Iowa is the first state in the country to have such a law.

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