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Linn County elected officials have public back-and-forth over marijuana arrest racial disparities

Published: Jun. 18, 2020 at 12:20 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Activists in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are calling for local prosecutors to stop pursuing criminal charges for people who have small amounts of marijuana.

Studies show Black people in Iowa are 7.3 times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for minor marijuana crimes compared to White people, according to an April report from the American Civil Liberties Union. That disparity ranks Iowa fifth-highest in the nation for having a disparity that puts Black people at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system when it comes to these kinds of crimes.

Linn County has one of the highest rates in the state, as police are nearly 10 times more likely to arrest Black people for marijuana compared to White people, well over the national average, which shows the disparity at 3.6 times, according to the ACLU study.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said that disparity is not because Black people are using marijuana more.

“We know — it’s an empirical fact — that people of color have a disproportionate rate of contact with law enforcement. We know that communities of color are over-policed,” Walker said.

The editorial staff of The Gazette made a similar argument when it cited the same ACLU study in an April editorial and said that Iowa and its law enforcement need to do better.

That struck a chord with Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, who wrote in response to The Gazette that its staff editorial “was a reprehensible attack on our police and a shameful play of the race card.”

Vander Sanden — who declined comment for this story — said, “There are other factors that account for racial disparities in the justice system.” In Linn County, he said police concentrate on “hot-spot” areas to combat a serious gun violence problem, and some of those patrols lead officers to find people with marijuana.

While Vander Sanden conceded that Black people are overrepresented in Iowa’s prisons, he says police and the criminal justice system aren’t to blame, saying, “The fact of the matter is that the people in prison are the ones who are committing the crimes.”

Walker — who penned a letter with Cedar Rapids NAACP Branch President Dedric Doolin, Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi, and ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer, criticizing Vander Sanden’s guest column — said he found the county attorney’s approach “incredibly troubling.”

“Every Black leader in this community was alarmed that the top law enforcement official, the person who has the ultimate say in whether or not you are prosecuted for a crime doesn’t seem to understand the inherent bias and structural failures of our criminal legal system,” Walker said.

Walker said the county attorney himself can be the one to lead immediate change in tackling these racial disparities by refusing to prosecute low-level marijuana crimes.

“If we just say we aren’t going to prosecute, we shouldn’t arrest these petty crimes that we’re locking up Black and Brown people for, then that goes a long way in addressing some of these disparities,” Walker said.

Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.

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