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African Americans in Iowa's Prisons

posted on January 22, 2008 at 11:42 AM

Brad Richardson is Director of the DMC Resource Center in Iowa City, which is connected with The University of Iowa School of Social Work. David Goodson is with the Family & Children Council in Waterloo and works with a variety of organizations, including social action, seeking to identify problems and form solutions.

Mundt: Welcome to both of you. It's kind of the template for our discussion here. We're going to talk about some problems, and we're going to talk about what we hope are some solutions. As you look at those startling statistics, the disproportionate number of African Americans in Iowa who are in prison, what do you see as the causes? Brad, I'll start with you.

Richardson: Well, there’s a wide variety of causes. What we've been looking at is the overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system. We started that about seven years ago. We then moved on to include the child welfare system and then also disproportionality in the education system, suspensions, expulsions, achievement gap. I think Iowa rates worst in the country in terms of disciplinary actions in schools.

So there’s a range of problems in each of these systems. These systems are connected. So we've been doing research. We've been trying to raise awareness. We've been trying to engage communities. I think raising awareness is one key to creating better services. But I don't think we have -- we don't have a proposal out there for if you do (a) that this will bring the disproportionality down.

Mundt: It's hard when so many of these pieces are -- actually acting on one does have a ripple effect, but it’s probably not enough to make a major change. You really have to act on all of them.

Richardson: And what’s been happening historically is that the ripple effect has been in the wrong direction, and so it's caused problems.

Mundt: David, what are your thoughts?

Goodson: My thoughts are that when you're talking about the causes of these disparities, whether you're talking about the education system, suspension rates, dropout rates, whether you're talking about juvenile justice or the adult criminal justice system, you have to begin to understand the legacy of racism. And so when you begin to understand that, that's where I begin to say that this is the result of some of this.

So what do I mean and how does race and racism play into it? When two different people -- white, black -- commit the same offenses but get different sentences, similarly situated crimes, different sentences, same with the school system, commit the same misbehavior in school, one gets suspended, one goes to in-school detention or so forth.

So this whole idea of this double standard and differential treatment in the education system, the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system -- gain, I think you have to begin to understand the legacy of race and racism in this whole genre and, you know, how did we get -- how did we get to the point of all these disparities, how did we get to the point to where we have, in 2008, 2.3, -4 million people in the adult system, over 50 percent of those are African Americans.

When you look back from the early 1900s going from 60,000, 100,000, 200,000 -- up until 1900 to 1970, '79, America had never had more than 350-, 400,000 people in prison, but once the drug epidemic hit in the 1980s, we went from 1979 to 1990, 1.2 million people, 1990 to 2000 and current 2.some million people, overwhelming majority African American.

Mundt: Mandatory minimum sentences plays into that a little bit. There's this issue of race. That's a hard issue I think for us in Iowa and for anywhere in the country for folks to look at and face, the idea that -- I think we want to think that we've come to a point where we're beyond that. I guess what you're saying is that maybe we're not. Brad, do you think that's one of those lingering things that we have to deal with?

Richardson: When we look at who is being locked up in the juvenile justice system -- and those are kids that are going to populate our prison system down the road -- we’ve seen a growing number of people who are confined for misdemeanors. Fifteen years ago we were talking about the super predator, and that just hasn't turned out to be the case. So we have become more restrictive, and so we're locking people up for misdemeanors and then -- they learn things from being locked up, not that we necessarily want to teach them, they learn --

Mundt: And that leads to recidivism. What David, though, is saying is not only are we doing that but somewhere along the line a decision is being -- something happens and it turns out that a black man is more likely to be put into prison for misdemeanors, nonviolent criminal offenses, than a white man.

Richardson: And there is certainly what some call subtle, unintended bias, racial bias. Some would use the term institutional racism. It sure is there. What I was coming to as far as detention, as far as locking people up, we want to teach them a lesson so we lock them up.

But with kids, what they learn when we lock them up -- one thing we know is if you lock up a low-risk offender with a high-risk offender, that's probably the surest way to make that low-risk offender also a high-risk offender. The other thing that we teach them is once you've broken down that barrier to being locked up, you're afraid of it, you get locked up, someone comes along and says if you don't do this, we're going to lock you up again, they say did it before.

Mundt: Been there once before.

Richardson: So that might work one time, but successive lockups, you run out of the effectiveness very quickly.

Mundt: How do we begin to address this? We've been aware of this for twenty years, and it seems like during that period of time its only gotten worse. So, David, how do we begin to address this issue and think about not only how we got there but also begin to take some real steps to get us out of it?

Goodson: I think it's real easy. It's real simple. There has to be a shift in paradigm, a shift in how we view crime and punishment. We have to -- we have to eliminate zero-tolerance policies in school. They have to be eliminated. You have to be able to make discretion case by case. We have to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, taking away the discretion of judges. We have to give judges back the discretion. So those are the ways we begin to solve it.

And we have to understand and begin to believe that prisons should be reserved primarily for violent offenders. And the overwhelming majority of people in prison are nonviolent offenders, and we don't have to continue to send nonviolent offenders to jail and to prison. And so we must expand community-based corrections, agency-based corrections, faith-based programs and so forth. That’s how we begin to solve this.

Mundt: But it's a significant -- it's a major infrastructure change because it says those treatment programs and, as you said, faith-based programs, private programs that are available oftentimes to the white kids or to African American kids who maybe are a little higher on the socioeconomic scale are going to have to be expanded and certainly, probably, more well funded than they are now.

Goodson: Well, certainly. But we need to -- we need to begin to move in that direction. We must. We cannot continue to incarcerate our way, so to speak, out of this issue, out of this problem. And the bottom line is that people need to think about is that nonviolent offenders -- we should not have 1.4, 1.6 nonviolent offenders in prison, period.

Mundt: Brad, what do you think of that, looking at it from that issue of zero-tolerance policies in schools and mandatory minimum sentencing?

Richardson: I think that's absolutely the case. I think the system is broken. We've done all kinds of studies over the last seven years. Others have done studies. We find that -- when we've gone out and talked to people about overrepresentation and suspensions, the kids that we've talked to said suspension doesn't work. The way it's used seems racist, but the schools continue to use suspensions.

And child welfare, about 50 percent of the kids who transition out of the child welfare system end up either in prison or homeless within the year following their exit from child welfare. That’s nationally, not Iowa. I'm not sure what the Iowa statistics are.

In the juvenile justice system, there are situations where kids get locked up in -- while people are thinking about what an alternative to detention will be. That seems very backwards. You want to have an alternative to detention that precedes being locked up. But in many of these counties that we've looked at --

Mundt: They have no other place to put them.

Richardson: They say, well, let's put them in detention and then we'll figure out what to do, or they should go to an alternative. That makes no sense.

Mundt: There’s no other place -- there aren't other agencies or other treatment centers.

Richardson: There could be. But we need to restructure the way we do things. Right now the structure is to put them into detention and then put them into an alternative to detention.

Mundt: David, we’ve talked a lot about juveniles. Let's talk about adults a little bit. We have people who apparently have already maybe gone through that school-to-prison pipeline. It's not as though there is no hope for them, but what do we do for them to help them out?

Goodson: Are you talking for the adult?

Mundt: Yeah.

Goodson: There's all sorts of prison reentry initiative programs popping up across the country. When you talk about men and particularly African American men, there's all kinds of fatherhood initiatives. I work for the Family Children’s Council and I'm a coordinator for the Empowering Dads program. We do prison reentry, responsible fatherhood, parenting, so forth. So we have to sort of incorporate more of these kinds of programs because they are -- they do help people.

Mundt: Are there workshops or training?

Goodson: We have parenting classes. We work with employers to help individuals find jobs, because that's a huge barrier or hurdle once you get out of prison. Again, it seems that society is so bent on punishment, punishment, punishment. You know, a nonviolent offense will get you sent to prison, but it's a life sentence because once you get out, you have a felony, you can't vote, hard to get a job, and so forth and so on. So our programs work to sort of eliminate some of those barriers, help individuals find jobs and try to partner with employers, parenting classes, responsible fatherhood discussions in groups and those kinds of things, and they are helpful.

Mundt: So you've seen success with those programs?

Goodson: Absolutely. And probably the greatest success is my own, because I'm a former -- I'm an ex-felon myself who served prison time sixteen years ago, addicted to crack cocaine and so forth and so on.

Mundt: What made the biggest difference for you?

Goodson: Well, Lord of my life, number one. Number one, he intervened and delivered me and saved me and so forth. Other than that, I began to place a high value on what I wanted out of life and began to move forward in that area and so -- you know, I always say that having my children sort of forced me to grow up and become responsible, once I looked at them. So many men who have been involved in criminal activity don’t take the time to really look at their children, allow them to force them to grow up, you know.

Mundt: Brad, in about a minute left, the Governor has signed executive order number 5, creating a couple of task forces. What are one or two things that you'd like to see come out of those task forces?

Richardson: Well, this isn't the first time there's been a task force about racial disproportionality, so I guess I'd start with what I don't want to see is a report that sits on a shelf for five or six years and no one pays any attention to the recommendations. One of the difficulties with a task force is that they conclude their work and they go away. So I would like to see something in place that would -- that would require follow through.

Mundt: Clear bench marks, things to --

Richardson: Absolutely. If you don't have some outcomes related to the recommendations that have to be achieved, then no one does anything with it. So I think that is probably paramount in what happens with that task force. And secondly, maybe there's -- the time has come when those bodies should be given some real regulatory power. A guy with a sentencing project just wrote a statement in, I think, an Ohio law journal, recommending that we have social impact assessments for laws that may disproportionately affect minority populations, similar to what we do with social impact statements elsewhere.

Mundt: Just ten seconds left. What's the one thing you want? Do you want accountability? Do you want bench marks, David?

Goodson: Absolutely. And I think, in ten seconds, Governor Culver I think has taken a step in the right direction now. He's talking about community-based corrections, funding for those programs, so I think he’s taking a step in the right direction.

Mundt: All right. Thanks to both of you for coming and talking with us.


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