We have to do something about this. African Americans comprise around 3.5% of Iowa’s total population[1] but 25.3% of Iowa’s total prison population.[2] Arrests for marijuana possession exemplify the dramatic gulf in enforcement of Iowa’s criminal laws against African Americans versus Whites—African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their White counterparts,[3] even though the usage rates between the two groups are not substantially different.[4] The racial disparity of Iowa’s prison population, as Des Moines lawyer Jim Benzoni put it, is a result of “demographics, sometimes mingled with racism.”[5] Minority groups tend to live in Iowa’s urban centers, where it is “easier, cheaper and more efficient” for law enforcement to operate there. This problem is being intensified by the “war on drugs.”[6] Because of this, and in so small part due to America’s long history of racial inequality, African Americans do not have faith that their interactions with the police or in the court are “color blind.”[7]

The injustice occurring in Iowa’s criminal justice system does not end there, as there are collateral, long-term consequences. Finding employment, securing public benefits, and receiving an adequate education are all more difficult with a criminal conviction; the worst collateral consequence, arguably, is losing the right to vote.[8] Iowa is one of three states than impose a lifetime ban on voting for on individuals with felony convictions and the impact of this is unbelievable:  65,000 individuals and 9.8% of Iowa’s African American population is disenfranchised.[9]

This post is not meant to present a solution Iowa’s racial and social justice issues, but bring the issue to people’s attention. Being aware and informed is the first step in change. There are many Iowa-centered resources and ways to get involved, one of them being attending The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice’s 20th Anniversary Symposium, Arbitrary Injustice: Reflections on the Exercise and Abuse of Discretion in the Justice System on 24–25 February 2017. At this event, there will be more detailed discussion on issues such as:

recent efforts made by states to address the nations longstanding racial disparity in mental health commitments.

how school district leaders decide who to place in special education programs

the impact of the body camera revolution on police behavior.

evidence of how individual decisions by officers can transform a sexual assault investigation into the filing of false reporting charges.

protocols and rules for eye-witness identification.

Additionally, the following organizations working tirelessly to improve social justice in our state, advocate in the courts, and propose legislative action, and improve awareness.

·       NAACP of Iowa

·       Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities

·       ACLU of Iowa

·       The Sentencing Project

Lastly, if you would like to learn more about racial injustice in America’s criminal justice system, considering the following books and articles:

·       Devon W. Carbado, Blue-on-Black Violence: A Provisional Model of Some of the Causes, 104 Geo. L.J. 1479 (2016).

·       Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

Alle McNorton is a second year law school student at the University of Iowa College of Law and a student writer for the Journal of Gender, Race, & Justice.


[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Quick Facts Iowa, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/19.

[2] Quarterly Quick Facts, Iowa Dep’t of Corrections, (June 30, 2016), http://www.doc.state.ia.us/UploadedDocument/552.

[3] The War on Marijuana in Black and White, Am. C.L. Union, 18 (June 2013), https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/aclu-thewaronmarijuana-rel2.pdf.

See also Jon Gettman, Marijuana in Iowa, The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, Oct. 19, 2009 (available at http://www.drugscience.org/States/IA/IA.pdf).

[4] Dylan Matthews, The black/white marijuana arrest gap, in nine charts, The Washington Post (June 4, 2013), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/06/04/the-blackwhite-ma....

[5] James Benzoni, How demographics leads to Iowa’s prison racial disparity, The Des Moines Reg. (Dec. 16, 2015, 5:23 PM), http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2015....

[6] Id. See also Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

[7] Monica Anderson, Vast majority of blacks view the criminal justice system as unfair, Pew Res. Ctr. (Aug. 12, 2014), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/12/vast-majority-of-blacks-....

[8] Daniel Zeno, Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System: Challenges and Opportunities in Iowa, Presentation at the University of Iowa College of Law (Nov. 10, 2017) (notes on file with the author). See also Jason Noble, Iowa Supreme Court upholds ban on felony voting, The Des Moines Reg. (June 30, 2016), http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2016/06/30/iowa-sup....

[9] Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, & Sarah Shannon, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016, The Sentencing Project (2016), http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/6-million-lost-voters-stat.... To regain the right to vote in Iowa, an individual with a felony conviction must petition the governor directly to have their right reinstated. See Veronica Fowler, Continuing the Voting Rights Fight, American C.L. Union of Iowa (June 30, 2016), https://www.aclu-ia.org/en/news/continuing-voting-rights-fight.