Iowa House endorses criminal sentencing changes
Proposal aims to reduce prison costs by addressing sentencing disparities
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James Q. Lynch
DES MOINES — The Iowa House has unanimously modified criminal sentencing to reduce prison crowding and costs by reducing the number of prisoners who return after being released.
The proposal, House File 579, would modify criminal penalties to reduce the disparity in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine, now 10-to-1, and require someone convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer to serve 100 percent of a 25-year sentence.
The legislation is “tough on crime, but smart on crime,” Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, said before the House vote 97-0 to send the bill to the Senate.
Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, who floor managed the sentencing reform bill, said Iowa prisons are at 114 percent of their capacity with 1 in 5 prisoners serving time for a drug offense. Last year, drug offenders outnumbered all other offender types.
The cost of housing those prisoners is about $95 a day, but the cost can be reduced to $5 a day through probation and parole, Nunn said. The Department of Corrections’ budget request this year was $387 million, he said.
Reducing the number of those prisoners by 388 would save the state $1.45 million in the course of their incarceration, according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Offenders who receive mandatory minimum sentences reoffend at a higher rate than those who do not.
Nunn said Iowa’s prison population is expected to grow 30 percent in the next 10 years, driven by an increased number of drug offenders serving lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and lengthier prison stays overall for those serving mandatory sentences.
Mandatory minimums can be eliminated “without increasing crime,” he said. More than 30 states have reduced, eliminated or reformed their mandatory minimum and drug sentencing laws, and crime has gone down.
Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said HF 579 doesn’t go as far as he would like, “but it’s a great step forward.”
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