Guest opinion: Toward a Student-Friendly Criminal Justice System


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Part of the reason I'm running for Johnson County county attorney is because that's the position that can end the local criminal-justice system's current overaggressiveness toward young people.

Working in the law school's clinic, I represented many young people, including students. Many of these folks were charged for petty victimless offenses such as public intoxication (for being rude to a cop who stopped them for no valid reason) or marijuana possession (for having small amounts of weed on them). The proper role of a criminal-justice system is to protect and serve. That should include protecting and serving — rather than looking for reasons to arrest — students.

To create a more appropriate law-enforcement environment here, if I'm elected, I'm committed to immediately implementing a variety of reforms, including ending all prosecutions for marijuana for personal use;
ending all prosecutions for public intoxication (if a drunk person commits a real crime, charge them for the real crime); and quick and careful review of all arrests and dismissal of those that are unserious, unjust, or the result of racial profiling.

For Johnson County to have the University of Iowa here is a privilege, and we should treat people here for school accordingly. Young people come here to learn and grow and figure out who they are.

Yet too often, local law enforcement treats the presence of students as a problem. Instead of building friendly, problem-solving relationships with the student population and protecting students when someone harms them, too often local law enforcement goes around looking for reasons to bust students — often for victimless offenses like smoking pot or drinking too much.

Because of the overaggressive local criminal-justice system, well over 10 percent of the young people who come to Iowa City for an education leave town with a criminal record. For some, a petty arrest can contribute to a downward spiral that leads to dropping out.

It's long been true that plenty of college students smoke pot sometimes. The last three presidents — Bill "I Didn't Inhale" Clinton, George "When I Was Young and Irresponsible, I Was Young and Irresponsible" Bush, and Barack "Of Course I Inhaled; That Was the Point" Obama — have more or less admitted to smoking pot when young. And virtually everyone who was ever a college student — me included — at times drank too much. And yet here, in situations where no one at all gets hurt, current policies turn young people being young people into criminals.

Now, I'm all for prosecution of genuine crime, and there are some crimes that disproportionately affect students (including acquaintance rapes and landlord fraud) that should be prosecuted more aggressively than they often are currently. Ending the ridiculous focus of resources on the petty stuff will actually free up resources to focus more on the serious stuff in which people genuinely get hurt.

The system in Iowa is that if the county attorney decides to dismiss something, it's dismissed. And if that includes all potential prosecutions for marijuana for personal use and public intox, they are dismissed and those cases are over. That's what will happen if I'm elected.

I'm running in the Democratic primary. Early voting will start in early May. A decent turnout by students who want to end the current overprosecution will result in more sensible polices directing the local justice system.

To be in touch, my Facebook page is facebook.com/jz4justice and my number is (319)499-8917. It would be my pleasure to talk with any group or individual.

John Zimmerman is a new graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law and is running for the Democratic nomination for Johnson County Attorney.

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