Iowa incarcerates African-Americans at a rate 13.6 times that for whites
A national study released today ranks Iowa No. 1 in the nation in the ratio of blacks to whites in prison - a statistic that many advocates say underscores a failure to address one of the state's most serious problems.
The study by the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project found Iowa incarcerates blacks at a rate 13.6 times that for whites - more than double the national average. Across the country, blacks are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate for whites. Latinos are imprisoned at nearly double the rate for whites nationally.
A 1999 Des Moines Register investigation found the proportion of Iowa's blacks in prison, on parole or probation had reached 1 in 12 - a ratio that far surpassed those of most other states. At the time, one-quarter of all prison beds in the state were filled by blacks, a figure that has scarcely budged since.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses leave judges with little discretion. However, he said, many offenders get a lot of breaks - from police, probation officers, prosecutors and judges - before they wind up behind bars.
Although poverty plays a big part in criminal behavior, Sarcone said, no one winds up in prison for committing a simple drug offense. Sarcone also said he'd never seen an Iowa judge treat someone differently because of race.
"I don't have any sympathy for those who get sent to prison," he said, "because they are ruining their own communities and their own people."
Michi Palmer, a 25-year-old drug offender who has served the last 22 months in prison for a probation violation, said Tuesday that blacks also need to quit competing with each other for short-term material wealth and status symbols, and unite to help children see options other than gangs and criminal activity.
"Other races come together more," said Palmer, who expects to be released this fall from the Fort Des Moines correctional facility in Des Moines. "It's not like that with us."
Palmer said he felt forced into crime after his parents divorced years ago in Illinois. He said his mother was a crack addict. With no money for food, he said, he sold crack for the first time at age 11. Like many other black youths in the 1990s, he turned to gangs for material and emotional support, only to wind up in prison.
"I think it's a mental thing more than anything," he said. "There are some good, strong black men out there, but there are also a lot of broken ones."
Just 2.3 percent of Iowa's population is black, with the highest concentrations living in Black Hawk, Scott and Polk counties.
Study: Blacks Imprisoned 5 Times the Rate of Whites in U.S.