Report: Iowa needs to fix racial disparities in juvenile detention programs

DES MOINES — A report finds Iowa detains black youth at a higher rate than any other state in the country.

The Sentencing Project says to address racial disparities in juvenile detention, Iowa should grow diversion programs that deal with criminal conduct without sending young people to court.

Deb VanVelzen, youth coordinator for the Des Moines Police Department, says they’re trying to reduce the numbers by making it easier to take part in the agency’s diversion program.  “We took away the barrier of having parents’ permission,” VanVelzen says. “Every child that qualifies for our diversion program automatically gets enrolled, whether they want to or not. They don’t have to admit guilt.”

Diversion programs often connect youth with social services or require them to attend classes or service learning. The Iowa Department of Human Rights recommends reforms like setting a minimum age of 12-years-old for juvenile court defendants, and requiring diversion programs for first-time, low-level offenders.

Steven Michael at the DHR says justice advisory groups recommend starting all cases involving juveniles in juvenile court. Michael says charging youth as adults disproportionately affects black Iowans.  “Black youth are 11-and-a-half times more likely to be direct file than white youth,” Michael says, “which means if you’re 16 and you commit a forcible felony, or allegedly commit a forcible felony, you start in the adult court system.”

The Sentencing Project found black youth are 21% less likely to participate in diversion programs than their white peers. Michael says the recommendations will be shared with the governor and state legislators.

VanVelzen and Michael spoke at the Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities.