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Iowa sees worsening racial gap in youth incarceration

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa has recently laid out recommendations to reduce overrepresentation of minorities in the juvenile justice system. The effort coincides with a new report, which showed the state is still incarcerating Black teens more often than their white peers.

Research by The Sentencing Project shows Black teens in Iowa are nearly nine times more likely to be locked up than white teens. The overall gap increased by 20% between 2015 and 2019.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project and the report’s author, said when seen through a national lens, one big factor is communities of color are much more heavily policed.

“When youth of color experiment with marijuana, they are much more likely to do so in public spaces where they’re likely to be arrested for it,” Rovner explained. “Whereas white youth living in suburbs might be doing it in their parents’ basement, and there’s no police around to see that.”

Iowa’s gap also is bigger than the national average, which saw a small improvement over the same time period.

Last fall, Iowa’s Department of Human Rights issued its own report on disparities. Among other things, it called on the state to establish pre-charge diversion programs for all juveniles with first-time, simple misdemeanor offenses.

The Iowa report also recommended eliminating detention placement for juvenile offenders who violate probation.

Rovner noted still having those policies gives judges more reasons to put kids in jail or prison.

“We don’t need to tolerate these kinds of misbehavior, but we do need to divert kids from system involvement and make sure that there’s no record following them,” Rovner asserted.

The Sentencing Project report also confirms there is still a racial gap in Iowa for Latinx youth incarceration, although it improved by 23% from 2011 to 2019.

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