The Linn County Attorney’s Office is launching a limited marijuana diversion program, allowing some people charged with possession to avoid a criminal record.
The program is for first-time offenders with no previous felony charges. Studies find black Iowans are far more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite using the drug at comparable levels. Mark Bennett, director of the Drake University Law School Institute for Justice Reform and Innovation, worries the program may reinforce racial disparities.
“By definition, that’s going to have a disparate impact on black males,” Bennett says, “because they have a higher incidence of prior charges and convictions for possession of marijuana, and under the eligibility requirements for Linn County they’ll be excluded.”
Bennett, a retired federal judge, sees it as a good first step, but worries the program will exacerbate racial inequality.
“The fact that the Linn County program is race-neutral on its face, does not mean that it won’t have a disparate impact based on race,” he says, “and in fact, I’m fairly confident that it will.”
The program is being launched this month, with plans to review and potentially modify it at the end of 2021.
(By Kate Payne, Iowa Public Radio)