Commentary

Reynolds turns her back on criminal justice reform

June 21, 2021 8:00 am

Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke to cadets at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnston after signing “Back the Blue” legislation into law. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch).

Gov. Kim Reynolds turned her back on criminal justice reform last week.

What brought it home wasn’t just her decision to sign a knee-jerk “Back the Blue” bill that overreacts to last summer’s racial justice protests and makes it even more difficult to hold bad cops accountable by granting qualified immunity from lawsuits. We knew it was coming.

The clincher was her answer when reporters asked her about a state report showing that jacking up penalties for protest-related crimes would disproportionally affect Black Iowans in a significant way. “Don’t break the law and it won’t apply to you,” Reynolds said.

In that single answer, she repudiated the essence of criminal justice reform. That’s the need to address the all-too-real presence of systemic bias that leads to over-enforcement and over-prosecution of crimes committed by Black people.

Iowa leaders like Reynolds have known for years that Black people are overrepresented in the prison population: 25% of inmates in state prisons are Black, compared to less than 5% of the state’s population, according to the Department of Corrections.

Less than a decade ago, that was a concern for some conservative Republicans as well as progressives. Charles Koch of the mega-rich Koch brothers was out front calling for sentencing reform for drug cases and other nonviolent crimes. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, as Judiciary Committee chairman, joined with Democrats in 2015 and afterward to scale back mandatory minimum sentences, among other provisions.

Beyond questions of fairness and, well, justice, there were some pragmatic reasons for conservatives to get behind sentencing reform. Prisons were and are overflowing with nonviolent criminals, at significant cost to taxpayers. People who are in prison can’t work, and businesses need more workers. Families with a parent in prison are more likely to end up on public assistance.

Iowa has taken some steps toward sentencing reform for drug crimes, including in 2017 (under former Gov. Terry Branstad) eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for the lowest-level drug felonies and reducing the 10-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine penalties.

The reason behind adjusting cocaine penalties was directly related to racial disparity. Black people were far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for using crack cocaine while rich white people, who were snorting the chemically identical powder cocaine in equal or greater proportions, were unlikely to be arrested at all and received much lighter sentences if they were.

That law resulted in earlier release for hundreds of people incarcerated for drug crimes. But for criminal justice reform to work, lawmakers also have to resist creating new crimes or higher penalties that disproportionally affect people of color.

Since 2008, Iowa law has required lawmakers to consider the effect of proposed legislation on minority populations. That’s how we know the law signed last week, Senate File 342, would have a disparate effect on Black people. The minority impact statement produced by nonpartisan legislative staff showed that in fiscal year 2020, 71% of people incarcerated for a riot crime were African-American. Less than 5% of adult Iowans are African-American.

Reynolds’ response to the reality of systemic bias is doubly disappointing because for a while there, it seemed like she understood the problem and wanted to do something about it. She proposed a constitutional amendment for automatic restoration of felon voting rights before signing an executive order to address the issue. She convened a task force under Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former public defender, which offered some strong recommendations not only about reintegrating former offenders but also addressing racial profiling in traffic stops and collecting data to back up the policy. Reynolds has advanced some recommendations but caved to GOP lawmakers on the racial profiling proposals.

Now, she’s undermined the very concept of over-policing of minority communities with a single, flip answer: “Don’t break the law and it won’t apply to you.”

Right. Because no Black person has ever been pulled over for an imaginary or minor infraction as an excuse to search for some bigger crime. Oh, wait — the Des Moines Police Department had to pay $75,000 to settle just such a case in 2019. There are plenty of other examples.

If Reynolds were correct, then no Black person could ever be wrongfully prosecuted for a protest-related crime. But we’ve also seen that, just a few months ago, with the acquittal of a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested while doing her job at a protest last summer. She was the only reporter out of several who were covering the protest who ended up in handcuffs. Beyond the First Amendment issues, it’s a warning about the selective nature of protest-related law enforcement.

Reynolds just made that problem worse. By turning her back on the concept of racial equity in law enforcement, she’s turned her back on justice.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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