State-capitolNearly 10 percent of the adult black men who live in Iowa have either been sentenced to prison or have been paroled. Only two other states have a higher incarceration rate for black men and the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court is calling on legislators to find solutions to this “difficult problem.”

Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat from Des Moines, is one of five African Americans serving in the Iowa House and he’s says it’s encouraging that the top official in Iowa’s court system focused on the issue during his speech to legislators yesterday.

“I was elated that he began that conversation, on the level that he’s on,” Abdul-Samad says.

According to Abdul-Samad, policymakers can’t just focus on what’s happening in the court system, though.

“We have to start dealing with the ‘isms’, you know, we have to start dealing with the racism, the sexism, the poverty,” Abdul-Samad says. “We have to start dealing with the root causes and quit dealing with the symptoms.”

Abdul-Samad says all too often reform is merely “cosmetic.”

“Justice Cady set the foundation for systemic change, and not just cosmetic change,” Abdul-Samad says.

Representative Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone, is chairman of the committee in the Iowa House that would consider any bill to change prison sentencing guidelines.

“The challenge is nobody has exactly identified what the problem or the cause is and I don’t think it’s an easy solution,” Baltimore says.

Whenever this subject is raised, Baltimore says he asks a basic question about the inmates in Iowa prisons.

“Did they commit the crimes that they are accused of commiting and every time the answer is yes and that’s without regard to skin color at all…The bottom line for me is does the legislature pass criminal sentencing laws that protect the public without regard to skin color,” Baltimore says. “I think we do, but if we can establish that somehow we need to make some changes, then that’s something that we need to look at.”

Chip Baltimore (file photo)

Chip Baltimore (file photo)

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is now chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the United States Senate and he says sentencing reform is “going to be a point of discussion” but he will resist calls for an across-the-board reduction in the mandatory minimum sentences in federal courts.

“People that would want to reduce mandatory minimums for importation of heroin and cocaine, I tell them in my committee: ‘Those things are involved in violence crime. Why would you want to reduce that?'” Grassley says. “Well, they say: ‘There’s inequities.’ O.K. There (are) inequities….One of the things that makes inequities is that judges have been sentencing white collar crime a lot less what you might call blue collar crime.”

Grassley says federal prosecutors contend tough mandatory minimum sentences help to pressure some people to “squeal” on other criminals, to reduce their own sentence.