Apr 10, 2024 - News

How racial impact statements improved Iowa prison rates

Illustration of a gavel sticking through the bars of a jail door.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An Iowa law that factors the impact of legislative proposals on marginalized groups is helping lower the state's prison population, former state Rep. Wayne Ford (D-Des Moines), tells Axios.

Why it matters: The law Ford advocated for 16 years ago could help other states lower their prison populations.

Catch up fast: Iowa was the first in the nation to require "minority impact statements" for bills dealing with public offenses or sentences.

  • The statements evaluate the effects of proposed legislation on minority groups like people of color, women and those with disabilities.
  • It was created in response to a 2007 report by The Sentencing Project showing Iowa had the greatest racial disparity in prison populations in the U.S.

How it works: The nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency provides lawmakers the impact statements before debate by the Iowa Senate or House.

  • The review includes an estimated number of criminal cases the legislation would annually impact and the likelihood that additional prison capacity would be necessary if the bill were enacted.

The intrigue: Since the law passed, Iowa bills having no effect or a positive effect on minority incarcerations were nearly twice as likely to pass, per a 2015 review by the Associated Press.

  • At least eight states have implemented impact statements since Iowa.

By the numbers: Black Iowans were 13.6 times more likely to be imprisoned than whites in 2007, but that ratio declined to 9.3 by 2019, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project.

Reality check: There is frustration that Iowa's prison disparity rates haven't improved more.

  • The ACLU of Iowa in September issued a statement about the "continuing crisis," noting the state was tied for the seventh-worst rate in the nation.
  • Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, called for systemic reform in every facet of the justice process in the September statement.

Yes, but: Iowa's impact statements are a significant step in the larger effort to improve disparity rates, Ford said.

  • He supports legislation proposed by Rep. Eddie Andrews (R-Johnston) to broaden Iowa's impact statements by specifically evaluating how bills could impact minorities who are juveniles.

Worthy of your time: Efforts to expand the scope of minority impact statements are described as "a slow race" in a journal article written last year by Jancy Nielson, a Drake University Law School graduate and former intern at the Wayne Ford Equity Impact Institute.

  • Iowa and other states should improve data collection and audit the already-published impact statements to further evaluate efficacy of the existing programs, according to the paper.
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