Iowa must take major steps to create a criminal justice system that is fair and impartial for all Iowans, no matter the color of their skin.

An increasing body of evidence is proving what African-Americans and Latinos in Iowa have long known by personal experience: We have two justice systems in our state. One is for the poor, especially people of color. The other is for everyone else.

It’s disturbing then to see the top prosecutor in Iowa’s largest, most diverse county—Polk County Attorney John Sarcone—quoted in a recent Register article about racial disparities in our state’s criminal justice system. He is quoted as saying dismissively, “Guess what? They are committing the crimes…. The reality is, there’s a disparity in the number of crimes committed by people of color.”

However, study after study indicates something actually quite different. The disparity that exists is in the number of crimes for which people of color are prosecuted, not in the number of crimes they commit.

Data Show Racial Disparities

Some data to back that up: An ACLU study, based on FBI and U.S. Census data, found that a Black person in Iowa is 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though usage rates for both races are the same.

Prosecutors like Mr. Sarcone play a critical role in this system that stacks the cards against people of color, as the Register article points out. Too much power is given to prosecuting attorneys to determine an offender’s sentence. Plea bargains are made behind closed doors with no accountability and no appeals process. The prosecutor becomes the de facto judge.

At every turn, an impoverished Iowan of color encounters a system that treats that person differently than a white person. Low-income minority neighborhoods are more likely to be patrolled heavily by police and people of color are more likely to be racially profiled, so the likelihood of police interaction is higher.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

Studies document that in schools young people of color are more likely than their white peers to be disciplined more often and more harshly. As a result, police are more likely to become involved, feeding minority students into what is termed “the school-to-prison pipeline.” 

Further, the failed War on Drugs has ended up being a war on communities of color. “Get-tough-on-crime” policies show no evidence of making our streets any safer. Instead, they fill our prisons to overflowing with low-level, non-violent offenders at a terrible financial and human cost. At no other point in U.S. history have so many people been deprived of their liberty. One in three black men can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime. Compare that to one in six Latino males and one in 17 white males.

Some of our other top officials seem to understand this disparity. Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady and Gov. Terry Branstad in January both addressed the problem, calling for taking steps to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system. 

We agree. Iowa must take major steps to create a criminal justice system that is fair and impartial for all Iowans, no matter the color of their skin. Mr. Sarcone is simply wrong.

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