The Des Moines Register
January 14, 2015
Iowa’s court system should work in 2015 to become a nationwide leader in addressing racial disparities in its criminal justice system, while also working to make courthouse employees safer across the state, the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court told lawmakers Wednesday.
In his annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Mark Cady highlighted efforts in the Iowa City community and by judges to combat staggering statistics that show blacks are sent to prison and to juvenile courts at significantly higher rates than other racial groups.
In Iowa, 9.4 percent of adult black men are incarcerated – the third highest percentage in the United States, Cady said.
“Iowa may be a leader in the nation in the statistics showing racial disparities in its criminal justice system,” Cady said to a standing ovation from lawmakers. “Iowa can also lead the nation in finding solutions to end racial disparities.”
In 2014, new Iowa judges and magistrates began receiving training about recognizing different types of self-held biases, Cady said. In November, Cady went to a training session for judges and heard presentations from NAACP representatives on racial-disparity issues, he said.
Iowa’s judicial branch is also poised to have even more data on racial disparities gleaned from court cases that will be easier to research with the full implementation of the state’s electronic filing system, Cady said in an interview with The Des Moines Register after the address. All of Iowa’s 99 counties will be plugged into the paperless system by June 30, he said.
“Now that we’re almost completely integrated into our paperless court system, we’ll be able to use statistics to tell us the sort of job we’re doing,” he told the Register. “The (electronic document management system) is going to reveal a lot of things to us and allow us to find ways to do our work better.”
In his speech, Cady told lawmakers about a partnership that launched in August that includes the Johnson County juvenile court officials, as well as Iowa City police and the school district, to reduce the number of students who are referred into courtrooms for disruptive behavior such as fighting during the school day. In Johnson County, 10 percent of youth are black, but they comprise 54 percent of arrests out of schools, Cady said.
Cady said court officials will monitor the progress of the Iowa City partnership throughout its first year. The chief justice’s address drew immediate praise from Assistant House Minority Leader Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat who represents Des Moines’ urban core neighborhoods.
“If we as Iowans continue to ignore the racial disparities of incarceration and sentencing, we are compromising our judicial system and our way of life,” he said in a statement. “I believe we can make a different by communicating and creating a comprehensive plan for working together with teachers, law enforcement, community leaders and judges to reduce juvenile and minority incarceration and arrests.”
The yearly address comes as the judicial branch is asking legislators for a 4.7 percent increase in its yearly budget to pay for expenses including increased costs of health care insurance for employees, as well as a 4.5 percent salary increase for judges and magistrates.
The salaries for judges and magistrates had been frozen since 2008 until Governor Terry Branstad approved a 4.5 salary increase for the 2015 fiscal year that began in July, said Steve Davis, the communications officer for the judicial branch. The budget request for the 2016 fiscal year totals $182,773,989.
After the September shooting at the Jackson County Courthouse in Maquoketa, employees in the state court administrator’s office have worked with the Iowa Association of Counties to survey Iowa counties about current security levels at courthouses, Cady said.
That information will be used to update the judicial branch’s uniform guidelines for court facility security and the updated guidelines will be given to counties during the summer.
“We will broaden our efforts and look forward to working with all segments of state and local government to make all public buildings safe,” Cady said in the address. “While the day of the Jackson County shooting was a tragedy, that was the day when tragedy was turned into an unwavering commitment to do everything possible to make sure every place of justice is a place of safety.”
The judicial branch and association of counties have also formed a committee tasked with creating a standardized safety and emergency training curriculum that would be established for all Iowa counties, Davis said. Currently, trainings for active shootings or bomb threats are done county by county on an as-needed basis, he said.
Improved courthouse security was a significant public talking point for the Iowa State Bar Association, which called for a statewide review of security procedures after a March incident when a man being sentenced on drug charges brought a handgun to court at the Madison County Courthouse in Winterset.
Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Boone Republican who chairs the Iowa House judiciary committee, said at a reception following the address that he’s interested in seeing whether the chief justice will propose solutions to courthouse safety that legislators can tackle.
In addition to judicial branch employees, most county courthouses contain local government employees in county auditor, assessor and recorder offices, Baltimore said. He said he’s skeptical that the state government can take security steps that fit the approach each county needs.
“County courthouses are exactly that … they’re county courthouses,” he said. “While I applaud the chief’s thoughts and comments about wanting to make sure judicial employees are safe, I don’t know that there’s a state solution to that. Every courthouse is different, every county budget has different priorities in it and quite honestly different needs.”
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady touched on a variety of issues Iowa’s courts will work to address during 2015 during his annual State of the Judiciary address:
- Implementation of the electronic document management system: By June 30, all of Iowa’s 99 counties will be integrated into the paperless case filing system. This comes six months ahead of schedule, Cady said. More than 1 million Iowa cases and 4 million documents have now been filed using the system.
- Iowa’s children: Since 2012, the number of Iowa juveniles with criminal complaints filed against them has dropped by 20 percent, Cady said. Over the same period, the number of juveniles charged with felony crimes has also dropped by 20 percent. Additional juvenile court officers hired by the state have eased the burdens of heavy caseloads and allowed officers to spend more time with offenders.
- Civil lawsuits: On Jan. 2, Iowa implemented its new track for civil lawsuits over amounts of $75,000 or less, Cady said. This will allow these lawsuits to be completed within one year. “That was the day when the judicial branch launched a new model of judicial efficiency to give more Iowans more access to justice.”