DES MOINES, Iowa -- Gov. Chet Culver on Thursday signed into law a bill that will require lawmakers to look at the impact proposed sentencing laws will have on racial and ethnic groups.
The new law comes as Iowa tries to shake the reputation of having the greatest prison racial disparity in the nation.
Culver said the Minority Impact Statement Bill, which also applies to proposed crime, parole and probation issues, is the first of its kind in the nation.
"We are taking another step toward our common goal of equal justice under the law for every Iowan," he told a group gathered at an inner city YMCA. "Minority impact statements will serve as an essential tool for those in government and in the public as we propose, develop and debate policies in the future in our state."
The legislation comes less than a year after a report from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice policy group, said Blacks in Iowa are imprisoned at 13.6 times the rate of whites. It was the nation's widest disparity.
Culver said while 2 percent of Iowa's population is Black, 24 percent of its prison population is Black.
"This is a distinction we don't want," said Culver. "We all know we must and can do better, and we will do better in this area."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said Iowa's new law will allow lawmakers to anticipate racial disparities that could be caused by proposed legislation, and then consider alternative policies.
"Iowa's aggressive attempt to address racial and ethnic disparity can jump-start a movement for fairness around the nation," Mauer said in a statement.
Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines, said he first wrote the bill 12 years ago. He said it would create a better balance for Iowans.
For example, he said over the years there have been huge disparities in the sentences of those convicted of crimes involving powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
"A Black man was going to jail for tons of years for selling little balls of crack, and white males in suburbia who had tons of powder cocaine was getting away because you had more weight over here, less weight over here," said Ford.
In December, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved changes to federal guidelines to ease those sentencing disparities.
The bill Culver signed would also require that those who apply for a state grant must fill out a minority impact statement. Under the legislation, minorities include women, disabled people, Blacks, Latinos, Asians or Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaskan Native Americans.
Akil Jabbar, who works for Urban Dreams, an inner city nonprofit group founded by Ford, said he was sent to prison at age 17 on a drug charge that landed him a 25-year sentence. He ended up serving about six years at Fort Madison, where his father was also serving time.
"Everybody I knew had somebody in their family or somebody in this community incarcerated," he said.
Jabbar said it was time for the legislation.
"I like this bill. I'm definitely supportive of the fact that not only does it impact decision-making as far as laws concerning sentencing, but also funding for programs that affect minorities," he said.
While Culver praised the new effort, he said there is still more work to be done.
"I am committed to making sure that all levels of government reflect a shared value of fairness and justice," he said. "So, while I am very proud of the steps we have taken ... I want to be clear our efforts are just the first in many steps that we still need to take."