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Editorial: End the disparity

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 11, 2013 5:00 AM

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A recent national study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that the state of Iowa ranks worst in the nation in the ethnic disparity of marijuana arrests. According to the study, African Americans in Iowa are more than eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for possession — despite blacks and whites are equally likely to use marijuana.

This disparity is deplorable, and policymakers should hasten to fix it. The Editorial Board is astonished that the highest disparity rates in America still exist in Iowa, a state that has traditionally led the nation in matters of civil rights, civil liberties, and equality.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only around 3 percent of Iowa’s population is black. Whites, on the other hand, make up 93 percent. However, there are far more black persons being arrested — approximately 1,454 blacks arrested per 100,000 members of the black population versus just 174 whites arrested per 100,000 members of the white population.

The state-level numbers are astounding, but local data are even bleaker.

In fact, Johnson County has the third highest disparity rate in Iowa. Here, the arrest rate for blacks is 1,918 per 100,000, in contrast to only 247 whites per 100,000.

The war on drugs has transformed into a de facto war on people of color, particularly here in Iowa. Our lawmakers must take note and act to reverse this alarming trend, which they were instrumental in creating.

According to a report on reducing the disparity by the Sentencing Project — a research and advocacy organization dedicated to creating a fair and effective U.S. criminal-justice system — one of the most commonly identified causes of ethnic disparity in the criminal-justice system is legislative decisions.

The report states that county and city lawmaking bodies often pass ordinances that have a disproportionate effect on minority communities, including mandatory sentencing for drug offenses. Lawmakers must be more aware of the implications of their criminal-justice policies before they are passed. With better understanding of their legislative origins, disparities could be greatly reduced.

Other common causes cited in the report are higher crime rates and inequitable distribution of police resources. Because minorities are typically overrepresented in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, police spend a disproportionate amount of time patrolling minority-heavy areas.

This understandable allocation of police resources has the unfortunate effect of increasing the number of minorities arrested for drug possession.

If lawmakers and law enforcement are truly intent on tackling marijuana use, they must to do so in a fair and unbiased manner. Law-enforcement resources should be allocated such that drug offenders are equally likely to be arrested, regardless of their ethnicity.

If such a policy cannot be crafted, it may be wise for lawmakers to simply legalize marijuana, as recommended by the ACLU’s report, to bring an end to the ethnically biased enforcement of marijuana laws.

America’s criminal-justice system is supposed to be one that is free of discrimination of any nature. However, the existing disparity in marijuana arrests contradicts these values of fairness, justice, and public safety. Black people in America are blatantly being denied their right to equal justice.

Justice may be blind — but certainly not to color.


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