Enhancing Minority Disproportionate Incarceration Rates In Iowa

A minority impact statement is a significant portion of a fiscal note prepared by the nonpartisan Fiscal Division of the Iowa Legislative Services Agency.  In cooperation with the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning of the Department of Human Rights, the Fiscal Division analyzes legislation to determine if the legislation will have an impact on minorities.

Because Iowa has a staggering racial disparity in incarceration rates (as a matter-of-fact, a 2007 report from the Sentencing Project rates Iowa as THE state with the “highest racial disparity in incarceration”), it is important for legislators to take the time to look at these fiscal notes.  Placing an emphasis on the minority impact statements, legislators should examine whether there might be a better method of achieving the same goals while reducing the imbalance of disproportionate incarceration.

One of this year’s best examples of a bill that may have a huge impact on increasing rather than decreasing the imbalance of minorities in the correctional system is Senate File 384, a bill that creates the new offense of removal of an officer’s communication or control device (radio).

A legitimate fear of a law enforcement officer is having someone strip the service revolver from the officer’s holster.  A person who commits this crime violates the Iowa law of “Disarming a peace officer of a dangerous weapon” and the punishment is a class “D” felony.  A class “D” felony is punishable by confinement for no more than five years and a fine of at least $750 but not more than $7,500.  The penalty for discharging that dangerous weapon, whether it hits the officer, a bystander, the ground, or anything else is a class “C” felony, which carries a penalty of up to ten years and a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000.  This is all understandable and defensible.

Now, a related issue has come before the General Assembly.  Senate File 384 began as a bill that would make removing a communications device from a peace officer a class “D” felony, same as a weapon.  This penalty seemed a little steep in comparison with intentionally removing a weapon, but we did understand that the loss of radio communication can be just as frightening as losing a weapon.  We made an offer.  What if the law had graduated steps?

Wouldn’t it make sense to gradually increase the penalty along with the defendant’s level of intent?  Our idea was to suggest that if the defendant removed the radio, but inflicted no damage, didn’t hurt the officer, and had no intention of preventing communication, the charge should be less than a defendant who caused bodily injury; serious injury; or tried to prevent the peace officer from communicating.  Legislators in the Senate listened to what we had to say.

The bill was amended in the Senate Judiciary Committee to reflect our suggestion.  The penalty for removing a radio or other communications device would range from a simple misdemeanor to a class “D” felony.  However, in the course of amending the bill with our suggestion, the Senate Judiciary Committee added another issue to the bill.

A bill that has been coined by some as the “clumsy cop bill”, House File 528, is a bill that proposes to amend Iowa law that enhances the crime of “Interference with official acts” under certain instances.  As it is now, the law states that if “a person commits an interference with official acts, . . . and in doing so inflicts or attempts to inflict [serious injury or bodily injury]” the penalty is enhanced.  Several special interests desire to replace the phrase “inflicts or attempts to inflict” with the phrase “which results in”.  The derogatory title, “clumsy cop bill”, comes from the possible analogy of a police officer tripping on a curb and getting injured in the course of arresting a defendant.  There is a huge difference between “inflicting” and “resulting”.  Inflicts means to “cause (something unpleasant or painful) to be suffered by someone or something.”  Result is defined “as to happen or end in a certain way as a consequence of something else.”  As you can see, inflicts has a direct causal relationship to the incident, while results can be an indirect consequence of a separate act.  Therefore, a peace officer may be injured in an act that is the “result” of the arrest, but in which the defendant has no part.

We would settle for the word “causes” to replace the word inflict, if a change needs to be made.  Causes can mean “make something happen”.  This change was offered by Rep. Dave Dawson (D-Sioux City) at a subcommittee on the bill in the House.  We accepted the compromise; the County Attorneys Association flat out refused to meet us in the middle.  The Peace Officers Association at least thought about it.

Recently, a fiscal note on SF 384 was prepared at the Request of Senator Charles Schneider (R-West Des Moines).  The minority impact statement says:

It is expected this Bill will have a disproportionate impact on minorities because approximately 34.6% of offenders convicted under the Bill’s provisions related to interference with official acts may be minorities. Under current law, these simple misdemeanor offenders are not supervised in the corrections system. This Bill shifts simple misdemeanor convictions to aggravated misdemeanor and Class “D” felony convictions. There will be an increase in the number of minority offenders supervised in the correctional system.  To the extent that the new crime, removal of an officer’s communication or control device, results in new convictions, the minority impact may be understated in this fiscal note.

The addition of a separate and somewhat unrelated issue to a bill that we have worked on with pride and fairness, and one that treats minorities with balance is a step backward.

© Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.  Fawkes-Lee & Ryan.

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