Dave Selmon says there is no right way to do wrong.
“It will catch up with you sooner or later,” the 56-year-old Burlington man said, tapping a lifetime of personal experiences. “I think we have too many young black men walking in darkness. A life of crime and trying to get things the easy way is not the answer.”
He didn’t always think that way. In the early 1990s Selmon was into selling and using drugs. He served time and is clean now, working on a college degree, tending to a Burlington church as its pastor and going into jails to minister to the inmates.
In those jails, the percentage of black men exceeds that of the black population outside.
A disproportionate involvement with the criminal justice system is tearing black families apart and preventing them from finding good jobs, social workers, minorities, government officials and community leaders said in interviews over the past four months for a special project on opportunity disparity in Iowa.
The numbers get reported from time to time. The most recent annual reports from the Iowa Department of Corrections, for example, show the percentage of African American offenders in the corrections system grew from 15.6 to 17.4 in the years 2008-12 while the percentage of white offenders dropped slightly from 76.6 to 74.5.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that only 3.2 percent of Iowa’s population was African American as of 2012, the most recent estimate available.
Reasons for the disparity vary. Prominent ones in interviews for the special project, called Iowa’s Opportunity Gap, were a disproportionate amount of police attention given to black neighborhoods, which means more opportunity to be caught doing something illegal, and racial presumptions – profiling – that lead police to question a black person more so than a white person.
But other reasons exist, too, including living in unstable homes, having fewer resources to fight a criminal charge and not knowing your rights. Plus, people make bad decisions.
“Out of fear sometimes people just give in to the search, or maybe they don’t think they’ve really done anything wrong,” Dedric Doolin, an NAACP board member and clinical director for the Area Substance Abuse Council in Cedar Rapids, said about black people stopped by police who want to check their clothing, car or other belongings.
“Then they find themselves being searched and maybe they do have some marijuana on them,” Doolin said. “They don’t really realize the impact that’s going to have on their lives.”
The comments emerged as the nonprofit news organization IowaWatch examined racial achievement inequality in the Iowa’s Opportunity Gap project. The project is a collaboration with The Hawk Eye in Burlington, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the Fort Dodge Messenger and the West Liberty Index, using 50 years of census data compiled and made available by the Colorado-based nonprofit news organization, I-News.
The census data did not include information about crime, yet crime came up in many of more than two dozen interviews during the project. Adding to that, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report issued in June raised questions when calling a disparity between whites and African Americans in Iowa for marijuana-related arrests the nation’s worst.
The ACLU report found that, despite nearly equal use of the illegal drug, African Americans in Iowa are more than eight times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. At the national level the rate of arrest is 3.7 times as likely for African Americans.
Veronica Fowler, the ACLU of Iowa communications director, said the numbers are disturbing but that her organization is lacking when determining the cause.
“The report probably raises as many questions as it answers: What creates these big disparities? What kinds of things do we need to be doing differently? What kinds of things do we need to be more aware of?” Fowler said.
Last week, on Oct. 1, the ACLU of Iowa joined two other nonprofit groups – AMOS, which stands for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, and the Iowa National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – to do one-on-one interviews with people who have experienced racial profiling. Their goal, the groups said in their prepared announcement, is “to hold law enforcement and Iowa policymakers accountable.”
ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Ben Stone said leaders at the organizations hope to map where racial profiling happens, and when.
Doolin, in Cedar Rapids, said racial profiling becomes a larger problem in Iowa when perceptions prompt police to disproportionately target black people.
“There’s a perception out there that more people of color, particularly African Americans, are more likely to do drugs, to sell drugs, and that’s not a factual perception,” Doolin said.
The ACLU report on marijuana arrests does not include data on Latinos.
But police also profile Latinos, said Vanessa Marcano, Latino community organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.
The suspicion usually is tied to whether or not a Latino is in the United States with legal documentation. But it goes beyond undocumented workers driving without a license who are caught by law enforcement officers checking license plate information for owners and licensed drivers, Marcano said.
“They just look Latino and they’ll get pulled over randomly,” she said. “You can definitely see that and that is something that I hear a lot of complaints about.”
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has met with Latinos to discuss some of the complaints, which also dealt at one time with the since-discontinued practice of taking fingerprints of Latinos stopped for minor crimes such as traffic stops.
DEALING WITH THE DISPARITY
Iowa was the first U.S. state to require minority impact statements from its prison system. The Correctional and Minority Impact Statements report that the Legislative Services Agency filed with the Iowa Legislature at the end of April notes that Iowa ranked first in the nation for over-incarcerating minority men.
A recently published report by the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee about racial disparity in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system ranked Iowa third, behind Wisconsin and Oklahoma and above Pennsylvania.
Contact with the criminal justice system starts at a young age for some black Iowans, Jerald Brantley, founder and CEO of Spectrum Resources in Des Moines, said. He offers services that help ex-offenders re-enter society by educating them and providing job training.
“Teachers aren’t disciplining their classes anymore. They’re sending them to a resource officer, which is a police officer,” Brantley said. “And there’s starting to be a significant increase in the number of involvements with police officers for young people in grade school on up. And some of those things are leading to charges.”
Data from the Department of Human Rights Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning show simple assault was the most common reason for African American juveniles to be arrested in 2010, at 17.2 percent, which exceeded disorderly conduct by 1 percentage point. The third most common crime among blacks was shoplifting at 14 percent.
The top three reasons for Latino juvenile arrests were disorderly conduct at 15.3 percent, shoplifting at 13.5 percent, and simple assault at 9.8 percent.
Twelve percent of Caucasian juvenile arrests were for shoplifting, 11.2 percent for simple assault and 10 percent for liquor law violations in 2010, according to the report, issued last year by the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning and Iowa’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Council.
Virgil Gooding, a therapist at Keys to Awareness in Cedar Rapids, said data like that counter the stereotype of young blacks who get in trouble with the law consistently being involved in violent crimes.
“Even though the real reasons that these kids get arrested are the same reasons that other kids from other races get arrested why do we continue to believe that black kids get arrested for big crime and violent crime?” Gooding asked.
Yet, black gangs, which draw attention because of violent crime, persist in parts of Iowa.
“I think it is based on poverty and the isolation and prejudice and racism that still exists in our society,” George Boykin, executive director of Sioux City’s Sanford Community Center, said.
He explained further: “If they don’t feel that they are being treated fairly, that the judicial system isn’t there to protect them, that it has broken up their families. Then they feel the need to create their own safety net.”
The Sanford Center runs an outreach program that offers alternatives to gang behavior, an alternative program that helps youths continue their education while suspended from school, and after school and summer programs for elementary school children.
Boykin advocated the use of more money and programs to keep those feelings from emerging. “We are trying to keep our youngsters out of the law enforcement systems,” he said. “There needs to be more support provided to agencies like ours and more people involved.”
Brantley said Iowa’s criminal justice system is too punitive and shouldn’t simply send people to jail for nonviolent offenses.
“The system is set up to continually put people in prison versus to give them the opportunities to be out being productive, paying fines and stuff like that,” he said. “You can do some community based correction activities.”
Marshalltown Police Chief Michael Tupper said a detention screening tool is being tested at the state level that would assess the risk of arrestees to determine whether it would be safe to let them out on bail before their trial. An impartial tool such as this would eliminate racial bias when determining whom to detain, he said.
“If they aren’t a threat to themselves or others and there’s a suitable place for them to go, they shouldn’t be detained,” said Paul Stageberg, Administrator of the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning at the Iowa Department of Human Rights.
DAVE SELMON’S ROAD TO REDEMPTION
In the early 1990s, Dave Selmon was a crack cocaine addict selling and using drugs.
“At the time, it was the easy way to make money, and I think that is how a lot of our young black men get caught up,” Selmon said. “They think the money is easy, but they don’t look at the consequences beyond that.”
In 1994, Selmon was placed on probation for selling crack and cocaine. But in 1995, he was convicted of forgery, a felony. “I sold and I used and, in that process, I wrote some bad checks and that caught up with me,” he said.
Selmon went to jail in 1995 for two-and-a-half years. While in jail, Selmon said, he learned how to preach and how to build a sermon. He said he wanted to be a changed person when he got out of jail.
“What worked for me was realizing my life was out of control. And I cried to the Lord. And that was my answer,” he said.
Today, Selmon is a pastor at City Church in Burlington. One of his duties as pastor is visiting area jails, preaching the word of God.
“We go in the jails and we let the guys know Jesus is the answer,” Selmon said. “If you want to change, Christ is the only way.”
Selmon, 56, is enrolled at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, where he plans to get his degree in chemical dependency counseling.
“I would like to tell the young black men to really take a look at where they are and ask themselves, is that what they want out of life?” Selmon said. “People who say they want to live a life of crime, if they really search their heart, they will realize that is not what they want to become.”
Even if they do not end up in the legal system, doing drugs can prevent young black men from getting a good paying job, he said.
“Our young black men need to realize smoking weed is not cool,” Selmon said. “When it comes time to get a job, the weed will prevent them from getting a good job because of the drug test.”
Lauren Mills of IowaWatch contributed to this report.
READ MORE FROM THIS PROJECT
I-News analysis by Burt Hubbard. Read the I-News special report on Colorado that produced the data IowaWatch used for this story: Losing Ground: An I-News Special Project
I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS. For more I-News stories, please go to http://www.inewsnetwork.org/.
I-News and IowaWatch are members of the Investigative News Network, which includes more than 80 nonprofit news organizations.