Linn County introduces marijuana diversion program

Cannabis bud. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Individuals charged with marijuana possession in Linn County who don’t have a criminal record may be eligible for the county’s new marijuana diversion program. However, it’s unclear whether or not the program will address the county’s racial disparities for marijuana arrests.

Linn County announced the marijuana diversion program was on Dec. 28, and it went into effect on Jan. 1. The program has five main goals, according to a legal memo from the Linn County Attorney’s Office.

One of the goals is to address the collateral consequences of a criminal record, including difficulty finding housing and employment. Other goals include reducing recidivism, addressing substance abuse, better allocating court and prosecutorial resources and being “responsive to the evolving concerns of the community” while also enforcing state law.

The program is “designed for first time offenders found in possession of a user-quantity amount of marijuana,” according to a news release. County prosecutors will consider six main factors when determining if an individual should be recommended to participate in the program.

• Defendant is a first time offender found in possession of a user-amount quantity of marijuana charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance (Marijuana) and/or Possession of Drug Paraphernalia.

• The defendant’s charge is pending or arrest occurred on or after January 1, 2021.

• Defendant has not previously participated in the Linn County Attorney’s Office Marijuana Diversion Program.

• Defendant has not been granted a deferred judgement or convicted for the offense of Possession of a Controlled Substance or other offense related to controlled substances.

• Defendant is not charged with either another indictable offense in the same or in a separate prosecution or currently charged with any crime of violence, as determined by the Assistant Linn County Attorney.

• Defendant does not have a prior felony conviction.

Program participants will have a dispositional hearing scheduled 180 days from when they signed the program agreement. During those six months, the individual will need to obtain a substance abuse evaluation, complete any recommended treatment, complete 10 hours of community service, not be arrested and/or convicted for new violations and appear for all court dates.

After successful completion of the program, participants will have their case dismissed and the attorney’s office will recommend that the arrest and charge be expunged from the participant’s record. If an individual fails to complete the program requirements, the case will remain open.

Earlier this month, 39 elected Democrats from across the state signed on in support of legalizing small amounts of marijuana and expunging criminal records of individuals who have been charged for marijuana possession. The elected officials included members of the state Legislature, as well as city council members and county supervisors.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republicans, who hold the majority in the state Legislature, have indicated they are not interested in legalizing marijuana during this year’s legislative session.

Iowa Democrats pushing for legalization referenced economic benefits, as well as taking steps to address racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

Iowa has some of the worst racial disparities for marijuana arrests in the country, an ACLU report found last April. A Black person in Iowa is 7.26 times more likely to be arrested than someone who is white.

Map of Iowa from the ACLU report on racial disparities in arrests.

That disparity is even larger in Linn County, where a Black individual is 9.65 times more likely to be arrested than a white person. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker expressed concern that Linn County’s marijuana diversion program doesn’t address these racial disparities in the county.

“I think the basis of the program is well-intended, and it’s a good start,” Walker told the Gazette. “But as it is now, I don’t think it’s a good program. The biggest issue for me is that it does nothing to address racial inequities within the system.”

Walker told the Gazette he received information about the program from Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden on Dec. 23, which was five days before the program was publicly announced. Walker urged Vander Sanden to consult with the ACLU of Iowa and the NAACP about how to structure the program for maximum impact.

The five counties with the largest racial disparities in rates of arrests for marijuana possession.

Walker said the program could create even greater disparities since the individuals most impacted by marijuana policy are disqualified from participating.

“If we can acknowledge that African Americans are over-policed and over-punished — which are observable facts and there’s a lot of research on this topic here in Iowa — then we know that a lot of African Americans have criminal records because they’re over-policed and over-punished,” Walker said.

“And if having a criminal record disqualifies you from participating in this program, then what you have done is create what I call a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who don’t have criminal records, and a lot of those people — and this is just the law of large numbers — will be white individuals.”

Assistant Linn County Attorney Monica Slaughter told the Gazette that the program is a “starting point.” Slaughter said this is something that has been in the works “for years” and it is frustrating how “the criticism is that we just haven’t talked to enough people or we don’t know enough about the racial disparities in jails and prisons to implement any program.”

Slaughter urged Linn County residents to give the program a chance.

The Linn County Attorney’s office will conduct a review of the program at the end of this year, according to a news release from the county. If the review shows “meaningful progress toward the stated goals,” the office will continue and could modify or expand the scope of the program.

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