About 250 judges, legislators, parole officers, lawyers and a few people with criminal records gathered in Cedar Falls Thursday to discuss ways to reduce the number of African Americans doing time in prison. Nearly 10 percent of the adult black men in Iowa are in prison or have been sentenced to prison at some time in their life. The bipartisan Iowa Criminal Justice Summit was the brainchild of State Representative Helen Miller, a Democrat from Fort Dodge.
“If this momentum catches, I think we’ve started something right here in Iowa,” Miller said during an interview with Radio Iowa.
Two men from opposite sides of the political spectrum who’ve been working together for the past eight months on criminal justice reform at the national level were keynote speakers at the event. Van Jones, a former advisor to President Obama, has founded #cut50, a group that supports criminal sentencing reform.
“At a certain point, there’s only two political parties in the country: the give-a-darn party and the don’t-give-a-darn party,” Jones said. “You’ve got both wings of the give-a-darn party saying it’s time for change.”
Mark Holden is a senior vice president at Koch Industries, the company founded and run by the Republican mega donors known as the Koch brothers. Holden put himself through law school by working as a prison guard and he’s become a national advocate for reform.
“We’ve got 2.2 million people in prison. Really?” Holden said. “One in three adults in this country have some type of criminal record. Really?”
According to Holden, the U.S. has a “two-tiered” criminal justice system.
“If you’re wealthy, you’re probably going to be o.k. and if you’re poor, you’re probably not going to be o.k. at all,” Holden said. “Guilt and innocence has largely become irrelevant because of the way it’s set up.”
Holden praised the bipartisan bill that’s been introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley and others in the U.S. Senate. It would give judges more leeway in sentencing those guilty of non-violent drug offenses. Jones also praised Grassley’s bill and urged Iowans to lobby Grassley to get it through his committee and the entire senate.
“You’ve got to Tweet, Facebook, letters to the editor, call his staff — let Grassley know how much we appreciate it, just to get this conversation started,” Jones said. “Now there’s stuff in the bill that I like and stuff in the bill that I don’t like. That’s called democracy…but the first beat has to be: ‘Grassley did something good.'”
And Jones urged Iowa Caucus-goers to pressure the presidential candidates from both parties to address the issue of incarceration rates. The summit, which was held on the University of Northern Iowa campus, lasted all day Thursday. Jane Burleson served 24 years on the Fort Dodge City Council and she raised her voice during the discussion.
“The United States is supposed to be the United States, but is it? There’s a question,” Burleson said. “We’re so busy taking care and doing for other countries, but we need to get our own problems straightened out here in the United States.”
For example, research shows white and black teenagers use illegal drugs at the same rates, but among teens arrested for drug crimes, black teenagers are six times more likely to be sent to prison. Representative Miller, the event’s sponsor, said she hopes more Iowans are aware of those kind of statistics now and will urge officials to take action at the state level.
The chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court spoke Thursday morning at the event. Read more about his remarks here.