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Officials, residents differ on county attorney's role in racial inequities
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Officials, residents differ on county attorney's role in racial inequities

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WATERLOO — Black Hawk County officials and residents differed Tuesday night in perspectives about the county attorney’s role in prosecuting crimes in ways that disproportionately affect Black residents.

The discussion was part of a forum focused on racial inequity in Black Hawk County’s criminal justice system. The event, held virtually on video platform Zoom, was hosted by advocacy group Iowa Justice Action Network. More than 60 people attended the discussion, including prominent figures such as Waterloo Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, Sheriff Tony Thompson and Mayor Quentin Hart.

Al Hays, co-chair of Iowa Justice Action Network, said Black Hawk County is second to Polk County in how many Black people it sends to prison. While 9.7% of its population is Black, the Black population makes up about 51% of the Black Hawk County’s prison population, Hays said.

He said part of the reason for the inequity is the discretion of prosecutors, who can decide whether and how to charge people with crimes. Unconscious and conscious bias plays a role in these decisions, Hays said, which contributes to unequal outcomes for people of color.

Chief Public Defender Aaron Hawbaker called the county attorney the “chief law enforcement person” in the area.

“While they don’t control who gets arrested, they do control what cases are brought, how they’re brought and what dispositions are offered, if there’s any plea bargain,” Hawbaker said.

He said he knows other jurisdictions where county attorneys call out unconstitutional stops by police, refusing to file charges. He said prosecutors “are empowered to and supposed to use their discretion” to guard against injustice.

“That’s how you get law enforcement to do right,” he said. “If they give you tainted or bad evidence, or evidence that was obtained in an unconstitutional manner, then to me, it’s the duty of the prosecutor to say, ‘I won’t do that. I won’t file it.’”

The Rev. Creighton-Smith, of Faith Temple Baptist Church, said the county attorney does not push back against racialized policies.

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“We have a mindset where officers in our community, in the Cedar Valley, believe that they have a right to stop a person who looks suspicious without there being anything else contributing to that police stop,” Creighton-Smith said.

County Attorney Brian Williams called Iowa’s sentencing structure an “absolute joke,” adding that his office is looking at ways to dispose of probation violations. He said the effort will cause the prison population to “plummet.”

“Our discretion is not unfettered,” Williams said, adding that judges share discretion and victims have certain rights. “You don’t levy charges against somebody unless you have the proof of it.”

He encouraged people to hold prosecutors, police and judges accountable, but said defense attorneys should be added to the list.

“We see inadequate representation all the time, and there’s a jail across the street here that’s full of people, of phone calls that are not being answered, because someone would rather do something else than work with their client,” Williams said.

In a breakout session, Hawbaker said that Williams’ generalization of all defense attorneys is unfair. He said there are 10 people in the local public defender’s office who get free calls to the jail. Outside lawyers, who are sometimes contracted for defense work, do not get the same perk.

He said other counties would characterize Black Hawk County as a place where charges are filed, regardless of whether crimes can be proven. He pointed to the first jury trial at the county courthouse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jurors cleared a Waterloo man of the more serious charges he faced related to an April shooting.

“I disagree with Brian that he shouldn’t be more reflective on the charging decisions of his office because it didn’t have to be charged in that manner,” Hawbaker said of the recent trial. “And yet it was, and it was tried, and it was tested by 12 people in Black Hawk County, and they couldn’t prove it.”

Mayor Quentin Hart inquired about the possibility of a statewide report analyzing the Black Hawk County criminal justice system, though no formal discussion or decision occurred.

IJAN plans to host a follow-up discussion Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. on video platform Zoom.

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