County attorney candidates talk racial disparity

BY KAITLIN DEWULF | MAY 13, 2014 5:00 AM

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The two candidates running for county attorney in the upcoming primary election stressed the importance of addressing racial disparity in the Johnson County Jail.

A public forum allowed the candidates — Incumbent Janet Lyness and candidate John Zimmerman — to answer audience questions on Monday.

Both candidates agree that racial disparity in Iowa, and especially Johnson County, is a problem that needs to be a top priority.

In 2010, Iowa had the largest racial disparity in the country of arrests for marijuana possession, with blacks being more than eight times more likely to be arrested than whites, according an American Civil Liberties Union study. This study showed marijuana use among whites was at the same rate as that of blacks.

Zimmerman said no one ever searches him, a “middle-aged white guy,” when he gets stopped for speeding, but he contended that African Americans get searched often in Johnson County.

He said racial disparity contributes to an overflowing jail, which has been a prominent issue in the County. Zimmerman said three-quarters of the people in jail on any given day have not been convicted, only charged, and they simply can’t afford bail.

“If you are wealthy, or have family money, and are charged even with a serious crime, you can bond out,” Zimmerman said. “Whereas if you’re poor, you sit in jail before trial.”

He said this distorts the justice system, disrupts peoples’ lives, and makes it hard to maintain jobs and relationships with family members. Zimmerman’s opponent agreed.

“There’s not a simple solution,” Lyness said. “And racial disparity is not just happening in Johnson County.”

Lyness said her staff is looking at disparity in juvenile cases and delinquency problems. She said she decided to start with the juvenile cases, look at what her office is doing there and make a difference, and then use what they learn to apply to the adult system.

After the release of the ACLU study, Lyness said, it led to the establishment of the marijuana diversion program.

This program seeks to keep people out of jail and wipe their records clean, while getting some the treatment and education they may need.

“Because of my diversion programs, we’ve decreased the population of the jail from 164 per day down to 127,” Lyness said.

Larry Kudej, the head of the Johnson County Task Force on Aging, said these public forums have a significant effect on voters through educating them on the issues and candidates they’ll vote for.

“These primaries are an opportunity for people to speak,” Kudej said. “And without proper education, they can’t vote very well.”

Lyness said this public forum was a great way for the public to realize what it means to be a county attorney.

“This sort of event is very important to our democracy,” Zimmerman said. “And the county attorney represents the people.”

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