Governor Branstad announced today has formed a new “working group” to address inequities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

Branstad spoke at a day-long symposium in Ankeny that’s focused on the over-representation of African-Americans in Iowa prisons and Branstad promises his working group will review the racial make-up of juries in Iowa and even how much prison phone calls cost. Peter Wagner with the Prison Policy Initiative said Iowa’s rates are higher than other states.

“The result, then, is to punish the families that are trying to do the right thing by staying in touch,” Wagner said.

Representatives of the NAACP cite statistics showing Iowa has more minorities in prison, per capita, than any other state. Arnold Woods with the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP said it’s not an abstract topic for blacks.

“Each and every one of us here know someone that’s in the system,” Wood said. “If not one of our kindred, it’s one of our church members or one of our sorority or fraternity members. We all know someone who is in the system.”

Carlton Mayers, the criminal justice manager for the NAACP, advocates for the rights of prisoners after they’ve served their time. He’s urging Governor Branstad to make it easier for convicted felons to vote.

“I’m sorry, governor, but I’m going to put you on the spot. We pay taxes. Let us vote,” Mayer said, to applause from the crowd. “This is what the country was founded on. This is what led to the American revolution.”

Former Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order in 2005 that restored voting rights to felons after they finished their prison sentences, but Branstad undid that when he took office in 2011. Felons must submit an application to Branstad asking to have their voting rights restored and submit paperwork proving they have paid their court fines and restitution to victims.

Representatives from NAACP chapters from all over the state attended today’s symposium, along with representatives from law enforcement, the courts and the state’s prison system.

(Reporting by Iowa Public Radio’s Joyce Russell)