A leading criminal defense attorney is urging a legislative committee that’s reviewing sentencing disparities in Iowa to equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Keith Rigg says those arrested for crack offenses earn a sentences ten times tougher than those for powder cocaine — and Rigg says that works against African Americans.
"This is a state with one of the highest minority prison populations in the country. Why are we supporting in any way increasing those prison populations by having a distinction between crack and powder cocaine," Rigg asked. Federal lawmakers have erased some of the sentencing differences between crack and cocaine to deal with the disparity.
Rigg says Iowa should do the same. Rigg says:"Crack cocaine is boiling water and baking soda, and powder cocaine, that’s all it is. The social effect is, more whites use powder cocaine, while black populations will be more likely to be prosecuted on crack cases."
State representative Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield and retired state trooper, says there’s a reason for the difference in penalties. Baudler says the crack cocaine penalties were enacted because of gang violence in black neighborhoods. "It was needed at the time," Baudler says, "It has to be looked at with public safety in mind."
In recent years,a bill to ease the disparity between cocaine and crack passed the Iowa House, but died in the Senate. Rigg also also urged the legislative panel to ease Iowa’s meth penalties to keep more people out of prison who are only users, not dealers.Rigg says mandatory minimums are keeping small time offenders in prison too long.
"What we have been doing for several years now is essentially putting drug abusers in prison," Rigg says. The Iowa Trial lawyers association is urging lawmakers to make the change to relieve prison overcrowding and make sentences fairer. But Baudler says they can’t lose focus on the main issue.
Baudler says he wants everyone to concentrate on public safety. Baudler says he can agree with those who’re concerned about the cost of incarceration and probation, but says "public safety has to be number one." A leading democrat says getting sentencing changes through the legislature will be tough when lawmakers could be labeled soft on crime.