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April 5, 2016

Disconcerting data on racial skew in application of mandatory minimums in Iowa

This lengthy local article, headlined "Blacks hit hard by Iowa's mandatory sentences," reports on the disparity in the application of certain state sentences in the heartland. Here is how the article starts:

More than 1,190 inmates are serving time in Iowa prisons for violent crimes that, by law, require a specific number of years behind bars and at least 70 percent of the sentences be served before they're considered for parole.  And at least 35 percent of those inmates are black — in a state where 3.4 percent of the population is African-American.

If you want to know why Iowa imprisons a larger share of its black residents than almost any other state, mandatory minimum sentencing laws are one place to start, critics say.  Iowa's lopsided statistics have prompted the state’s Public Safety Advisory Board for three consecutive years to recommend that the Legislature ease sentencing mandates on two crimes — first- and second-degree robbery — that have been especially tough on African-Americans, said Thomas Walton, the board’s chairman and a Des Moines attorney.  During a four-decade period, 42 percent of Iowa inmates serving prison time for robbery were black, state data show.

A Des Moines Register review of robbery sentencing guidelines for 11 Midwestern states shows that Iowa’s are the most restrictive.  They allow the least amount of judicial discretion in determining how much time an offender will spend behind bars.  “The theory behind mandatory minimum sentences was, ‘Let’s lock them up for a longer period of time … and then we’ve avoided those re-offenses for the period of time that they’ve been incarcerated,’” Walton said. “Some of those assumptions, based on studies done by our board staff, were not necessarily correct.”

Iowa finds itself embroiled in the same debate raging nationally over the impact of mandatory minimum sentences, which were put in place during the get-tough-on-crime decades of the 1980s and '90s and have ballooned prison populations....

This year, the Iowa House, acting on part of the advisory board’s recommendation, approved a bill that includes loosening the mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree robbery.  Judges would have the discretion to say how much time an offender would serve — from three to seven years — before becoming eligible for parole on the 10-year sentence.  Now, offenders must serve at least seven years.

But Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, filed an amendment stripping the proposal from House File 2064, which has not been voted on by the Senate.  “When there is a weapon brandished during a robbery, I have a hard time reducing the sentence,” said Kinney, a retired Johnson County sheriff’s officer.  “I just don’t want to reduce penalties for violent crimes.”

April 5, 2016 at 09:15 AM | Permalink


Interesting headline--shouldn't it be "black criminals"? I don't see how law-abiding African-Americans are "hurt" by harsh penalties for those who brandish weapons during an armed robbery. Perhaps, Doug, you could explain.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 5, 2016 10:03:52 AM

Interesting quote "black criminals" (dog whistle?), clearly statistics show that African-Americans as a population do not commit more crimes because of their race, compared to that of whites or Hispanic. Social-economic factors including systematic and institutional biases, at the least, and racial discrimination at the worst, are arguable reasons that any race around the world, that represents just 3.4% of a population, but constitutes 34% of a prison population clearly screams, yells, and cries out demonstratively of a broken system, this clearly is unjust any were around the world. It must be daid any criminal policy must include conversations that begin with education (Jobs), medical care (mental health), unfair targeting by police, unfair jury pools (peers?), unfair sentencing discretion, justice demands much to be administered FAIRLY for ALL.

Posted by: Hector | Apr 5, 2016 10:55:28 AM

Cute Hector. Perhaps if you took the time to read, you'd note that I was suggesting a change to the headline which used the term "black" to refer to African-Americans.

You're an idiot.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2016 11:00:18 AM

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