Ames NAACP event examines racial disparity in justice system, which is severe in Iowa

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, with Black Americans disproportionately facing prison time — including in Iowa. 

This pattern of punishment "is definitely a through line that started with slavery through today," Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, said at a virtual Ames NAACP event Thursday.

The organization's Taking the Lead series this year is called "The Color of Injustice." A recording of Thursday's event, moderated by KCCI anchor/reporter Rheya Spigner, is available at facebook.com/AmesIowaBranchoftheNAACP.

In comparison to other states, Iowa is a "moderate incarceration" state, Porter said. But Iowa's prisons also have some of the nation's highest racial disparities.

Numbers from the Sentencing Project show 25% of incarcerated Iowans are Black. That's despite the fact that only 4% of Iowa's population is Black, according to U.S. Census data.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center, has also pushed to end life imprisonment, or "death by incarceration," Porter said.

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"Of the people sentenced to life imprisonment in Iowa, about 25% are African American," Porter said.

When Spigner asked Porter if policing could contribute to "collective efficacy" in Black communities, Porter said: "The presence of policing and the increase of police contact is a key driver of incarceration growth."

"I think the goal is to prevent interactions with the legal system to begin with and to create social structures that support communities and prioritize public resources ... including access to early childhood education and other health-care support, so that if somebody is at risk of coming in contact with the legal system, an arrest and a prison term aren't the only option," Porter added.

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Eric Harris, an Iowan with a felony conviction who advocates for voting rights, also spoke Thursday. Harris voted for the first time in 20 years in November after Gov. Kim Reynolds restored felon voting rights. Iowa had been the last state in the country to disenfranchise people with felony convictions.

"It was awesome," Harris said of being able to cast a ballot.

Harris, who grew up in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project in Chicago, said he used to be involved in gangs. Last year, he worked with ACLU Iowa on a campaign for felon voting rights restoration.

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"From being a 15-year-old guy that was going to prison and going to jail, I'm a father, a husband and a homeowner ... It took a long journey to get to that point," Harris said.

Once incarcerated for marijuana possession, Harris said it has been interesting watching the drug become decriminalized or legalized. He is critical of Iowa's cannabis laws, pointing out that carrying a gun without a permit is allowed in the state.

"They sent us to prison in the '90s for doing things like that," Harris said. "But if you bring marijuana into Iowa, you're going to be arrested and you're going to face very bad penalties."

Harris said that he wasn't comfortable doing media interviews in 2020, but he spoke out anyway so that he could have a chance to vote.

"You have to keep going ... have to just keep straight, keep trying to find a way to get through the barriers that they might put up," Harris said. "I don't have a problem with police. They can do what they do. But I make sure that I stay away. ... The racism and the divisiveness in this country right now needs to change."

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.