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Chief justice cites progress, warns of racial disparity in criminal justice system

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DES MOINES | Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady updated legislators Wednesday on progress the court system is making in protecting children and families, and making the courts more efficient, but also called for addressing racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Iowa jails 9.4 percent of its adult African-American males, which is the third highest in the nation, Cady said, adding that Iowa can be a leader in ending that racial disparity.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, one of five minority members of the Legislature, welcomed Cady's attention to the issue.

"If we as Iowans continue to ignore the racial disparities … we are compromising our judicial system and our way of life," he said.

The issue is always on lawmakers' radar, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, "but the challenge is nobody has exactly identified the problem or the cause. It’s not an easy solution."

It is a difficult problem, Cady said, "but its complexity must not deter us from finding a solution."

Although Iowa is a national leader in the incarceration of minorities, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said it's a federal issue, too. He hopes to address it through sentencing reform and prison reform legislation.

However, while at the Iowa Statehouse Wednesday, the former Iowa House member pointed out that about 5 percent of people in prison are there under federal charges.

"So for the other 95 percent, you might have 50 different answers," Grassley said.

In his fourth annual Condition of the Judiciary speech to the Iowa House and Senate, Cady likened the work of building a better court system to the work of his grandfathers, who were carpenters.

"Like others who build with their hands, they could look at their work at the end of the day and see progress," he said. Building a court system may not reveal progress as easily as the work of a carpenter, but "each day is our opportunity to bring justice to Iowans."

Progress, Cady said, can been seen in in the reduction of juveniles facing criminal complaints and felony charges. Since 2012, 2,896 — 20 percent — fewer juveniles have faced criminal complaints and 331 fewer juvenile, also 20 percent, faced felony charges. Overall, there are 10 percent fewer young Iowans entering the adult correctional system.

Cady cited progress in protecting families with the continued implementation of family treatment courts in every judicial district.

Likewise, the implementation of changes in civil litigation is helping to reduce the time and expense involved in all civil cases. An expedited track for civil suits of less than $75,000 will enable those cases to be resolved in a year or less, he said.

He also reported that Iowa's electronic, paperless system will be operational in all 99 counties by June 30 making Iowa the first court system in the nation to have a fully electronic paperless process for all cases at every level. It now has more than 1 million electronically filed cases.

Resolving racial disparity may not be as easy as implementing new technology, however, said Iowa City attorney Bruce Walker, president-elect of the Iowa Bar Association. He called it important for Cady to raise the issue of over-representation of a "small minority who are patently obvious."

"Nobody has the answer," Walker said, but he appreciated Cady's mentions of training efforts in Johnson County that involve personnel from the courts, law enforcement, schools and others.

Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, who chairs the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee, called racial disparity a legislative concern, "but I don't know if we have a handle on whether they are being treated differently. I don't know whether we've got an answer for that."

While "one-off cases" show that a white defendant and a minority defendant were treated differently, Worthan's not sure lawmakers have the data to document discrimination.

The question that has to be asked, according the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Sodders, D-State Center, a Marshall County deputy sheriff is 'Is this person a danger to the public?'"

He has talked to Cady about meeting with justices to discuss changes to “smartly do this.” For him, that includes addressing mental health and drug use issues.

"If we don't fix those things, I can put you in prison but you will come out and do the same things," Sodders said.

Baltimore also would welcome the justices' input.

"I think it's a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-faceted solution," he said. "The bottom line for me is does the Legislature pass criminal sentencing laws that protect the public without regard to skin color.

"I think we do, but if we can establish that somehow we need to make change, then that's something we need to look at," he said.

The full text of Cady’s speech can be found at www.iowacourts.gov.

Comments: 319-398-8375; James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

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