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Waterloo lawmaker looks ahead to 2021 racial justice reform

WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL) -- On a day dedicated to service, Democratic Representative Ras Smith spent the afternoon gathering food donations at Lincoln Park.

"When I reflect on Dr. King's vision, it was one that was meant to be applied to everybody, regardless of race," Smith said.

Smith was integral in last year's racial, criminal justice reforms and will likely reprise that role this year. The Waterloo native sponsored and helped draft 2020's More Perfect Union Act, which passed with bipartisan support in the Iowa statehouse following the death of George Floyd.

Iowa has struggled with disproportionate effects on its Black populations. The latest data from the Iowa Department of Corrections shows African Americans make up 25% of the total prison population while only accounting for 4% of the state's total population, according to US Census Bureau estimates.

The Vera Institute of Justice, which tracks data from federal, state, and local sources, shows that incarceration rates vary for parts of Iowa. In Black Hawk County specifically, rates have been hire for a multitude of years.

Read the latest Black Hawk County Sheriff's Annual Report here.

"The disparities here are going to be broader than other counties across the state, because the ratio of African Americans, or the black population to the white population in our county, specifically, is going to be greater," Smith explained.

Last week, Governor Kim Reynolds called for criminal justice reforms in the state that would enhance repercussions for those who assault police but also put an end to racial profiling. Such a ban was included in those reforms from last June, which Smith sponsored, but didn't make it through the legislature.

"So for me, there is a little heartache when the governor says that she's going to propose legislation that I argued would be better served a year ago. Because I didn't want people to have to endure a year of more traumatic racial oppression," Smith said.

To Smith, reforms extend beyond such a direct approach, but tackling the things that could help keep someone out of jail. He plans to focus on things like mental health and healthcare, specifically how it can disproportionately affect people of color.

African Americans have 2.3 times higher infant mortality rates compared to the white population.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Data

"But that's also an access issue that women in rural communities are struggling with as well. So that's something that we're gonna be looking for. We're looking at small business reform because I think those things impact communities of color just as much as they do impact those who have rural storefronts," Smith said.

Smith hopes to also shift the focus to how Iowa rehabilitates those coming out of the prison system.

Iowa hit a record low last year in terms of population, but daily data from the Iowa Department of Corrections shows they're still overcrowded by a little less than 600 inmates statewide.

The Iowa DOC also published a first of its kind report last year regarding the racial disparities found in Iowa's prison system. READ THAT HERE.

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Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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