Iowa Passes Series of Criminal Justice Reforms
Iowa recently became another state to tackle criminal justice reform. Governor Terry Branstad on May 12, 2016 signed into law a criminal justice reform package that provides more leniency in sentencing for certain crimes and stiffens penalties for others. “This is an important step that can help in reducing our prison population while keeping our communities safe,” Branstad said. He added that the package represents “reasonable and balanced reforms.”
The bill requires individuals convicted of child endangerment resulting in death of a child to serve at least 15 years of their potential 50-year sentence before becoming eligible for parole. This changes the previous law, which allowed those convicted of child endangerment resulting in death of a child to be eligible for parole immediately. Currently, the average prison stay for the crime is 4.6 years, according to the state’s nonpartisan research agency.
Additionally, the reforms extended the statute of limitations for all serious child endangerment instances to 10 years after the victim reaches adulthood at age 18. “[M]any abused children fear bringing their abusers to justice until they are well into adulthood, due to mental and physical trauma,” said Representative Ken Rizer, as he explained the rationale for extending the statute of limitations.
In addition, the bill involved decreasing the mandatory penalty for some non-violent drug abusers. The Iowa Legislature objected to the initial version of the reform measure because it decreased penalties for big-time drug dealers. The new law makes certain non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole after serving half the mandatory minimum sentence, giving more discretion to the parole board. An Iowa Legislative Services Agency report estimated that if 205 prisoners were paroled, the state would save $227,000 in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2017; $757,000 would be saved the following fiscal year if more prisoners were paroled. Ultimately, the legislature agreed to a version allowing the parole board to grant parole or work-release after a minimum sentence for nonviolent, low-risk offenders.
Rizer added, “This reform was necessary as our current system focuses too much on penalizing drug offenders and not enough on rehabilitation and treatment. Such a focus on penalties over treatment contributes to large racial disparities in incarceration rates and enormous expense to taxpayers. With the advent of new, highly effective risk assessment tools, we now have the ability to identify those offenders who are safe to reintegrate into society and are least likely to reoffend under a parole or work-release situation…What’s unique in this bill is that we actually allow the judge to have some discretion on mandatory minimums in order to better match the penalty to the crime…It’s a matter of individualizing the justice to make sure that the penalty fits the crime and that we’re getting people back out into society at a time that it’s safe to do so.”
Iowa ultimately decided to undertake the task of criminal justice reform. As with other states, Iowa’s goal is to save taxpayer dollars without compromising public safety. By cracking down on violent offenders while simultaneously providing alternatives to lengthy incarcerations for nonviolent, low-risk offenders, Iowans can be assured that their public safety will not be compromised and that their tax dollars will be better spent.