A national expert on U.S. sentencing policy urged Iowa lawmakers Tuesday to consider race when writing new criminal penalties. Marc Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project in Washington D.C. He says African Americans in Iowa are 13 times more likely to end up in prison than whites. Mauer says that’s why the state should complete racial impact statements before passing new criminal or sentencing laws.
"It doesn’t mean it prevents you from adopting legislation, it just means you’re pro-active," Mauer said. "If there’s an undue racial impact that you can project then it gives policy makers an opportunity to say ‘how do we accomplish the same goal without exacerbating the racial impact?’" Mauer says if state’s had done this 20 years ago they may not have approved tougher penalties for crack cocaine than powder cocaine…which has resulted in a disparate number of minorities being sent to prison.
Mauer says while national figures show drug use is distributed evenly among ethnic groups, more than two-thirds of the people serving time for drug related offenses are African American and Latino. "Much of that has to do with law enforcement practices. In communities with resources, drug abuse tends to be treated as a family problem or a public health problem. In lower income communities, it’s treated as a criminal justice problem," Mauer said.
Mauer says law enforcement is often forced to react that way because drug use in low income neighborhoods is visible on the street and residents demand to have it cleaned up. He says making treatment more available and affordable is one way to address that disparity. Today (Wednesday), the state’s corrections director will brief lawmakers about a two-million dollar initiative proposed by the governor to reduce the number of minorities in prison.