- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Black youth in Iowa are nearly five times as likely as their white counterparts to be suspended from school or arrested, according to a state committee that has proposed a five-year strategy for reducing the disparities.

The committee, which was appointed by the Iowa state court administrator to study racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, collected extensive data on the longstanding problem. Iowa remains among the top states in the nation for disparities between whites and blacks in key areas, despite efforts over the last two decades to make progress, the committee said in its new report.

“As a native Iowan, that is shocking and a list that I think we would want to change,” said District Judge Duane Hoffmeyer, of Sioux City, who chaired the 23-member committee. “And it shows all of our partners, whether it’s schools, law enforcement, judicial branch … need to help us in this problem.”

The number of school suspensions and juvenile detentions has dropped significantly in recent years, but the racial disparities haven’t budged, the report found. Black students from grades 6 through 12 were 4.8 times more likely to be suspended than whites, according to data from Iowa schools from 2008 to 2013.

During a three-year period, black juveniles were also 4.8 times more likely to be arrested in five of Iowa’s largest cities, the report found.

Once in the juvenile system, blacks were less likely than whites to be put into diversion programs and more likely to face formal complaints and be placed in detention, the data show. Those disparities are particularly significant because those punishments lead to criminal records that make it harder to get jobs and make it more likely that a person will reoffend.

The report calls on state leaders to host a summit to draw attention to the disparities and to carry out major changes in training, data collection and policies over the next five years.

The recommendations include adopting more training for law enforcement on racial bias and new screening tools to recommend punishments for juvenile offenders so that race doesn’t creep into those decisions. Blacks make up 3 percent of Iowa’s population, which is 92 percent white.

Hoffmeyer said the key will be using education and data to ensure that all offenders are treated the same, regardless of race, and that won’t be the adoption of a “soft on crime” approach.

Drake University law professor Jerry Foxhoven, who has lectured around the country on the problem, said people are surprised to learn of Iowa’s racial disparities, including some of the nation’s highest school dropout and incarceration rates for black males. He said the latest report is based on more data than previous ones, but “these numbers aren’t new.”

“Every little system has tried to address the disproportionality. The problem is that it’s the combination of the systems that do it,” he said. “They need to work together for the solution because they are working together to cause the problem.”

Despite the complexity involved, he said he was optimistic that state leaders can make improvements this time.

Committee member Wayne Ford, a leader of the black community in Des Moines, said the “stars are aligned” for progress because the public and key state officials are paying attention. He noted another recent report that found Iowa blacks were 8 times more likely than whites to be charged with marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

“It’s almost a perfect storm,” he said. “But we have to get our act together or the problem gets worse and worse.”


Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley

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