Iowa prison population holds steady in 2016

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DES MOINES — Iowa’s prison population declined slightly during the past year.

The 8,207 male and female inmates under lock at the state’s nine correctional institutions in Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Mitchellville, Oakdale, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Newton and Rockwell City at the end of the 2016 fiscal year was down 10 from the prison population count of June 30, 2015, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“We’re maintaining a stable prison population,” said Lettie Prell, director of research for the Iowa Department of Corrections.

The prison system admitted 5,561 offenders during the recently completed fiscal year, with 1,933 representing new court commitments for criminals convicted and sentenced for felony offenses and 3,034 returning for parole or work release violations as well as probation revocations, according to the DOC.

“New court commitments are hard to predict,” said Sarah Johnson of the state Department of Human Right’s criminal & juvenile justice planning division, which tracks prison population trends. “Those things are kind of out of anyone’s hands. We can’t really control who commits crimes or who gets convicted.”

The Iowa Board of Parole, in conjunction with DOC analysts, paroled 2,142 inmates in fiscal 2016. That was a 6.4 percent increase from the previous year. They granted a 13.3 percent increase in work releases to 1,515 offenders. Another 1,068 inmates saw their sentences expire in the past fiscal year. That brought last year’s total releases to 5,571 — the most since fiscal 2009.

“Every year, Iowa sees a fluctuation in our prison population,” said Ben Hammes, spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad.

“While there will continue to be many variables that impact the overall admissions and releases, the efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars by the Department of Corrections with a focus on public safety remain the highest priorities.”

Iowa has seen a slight uptick in the prison population since the new fiscal year began July 1. Thursday’s institutional count of 8,326 inmates is 14 percent greater than the system’s capacity of 7,286 beds. Another 30,314 offenders were under the supervision of the DOC’s community-based corrections system.

Iowa’s prison count is down significantly from the record of 9,009 inmates held behind bars in the state’s correctional system April 9, 2011. Prison overcrowding grew to 122 percent of design capacity that fiscal year.

Prell attributed the lower fiscal 2016 prison count to the department’s violence and victimization instrument that measures and identifies offenders who are at greater risk for committing new violent crimes or victimizing people when released from prison.

“Those are the crimes of concern that we want to identify and provide appropriate treatment to target so that when it’s time for these people to leave prison, and 95 percent of them will leave prison, we’d like them to be less of a risk than when we first got them,” she said.

Johnson said short-term projections suggest that Iowa’s prison population will remain relatively stable, but the long-range estimates call for the inmate count to grow to 10,058 by June 2025 — or 23 percent over the 10-year period, if no major sentencing or policy changes are enacted.

However, those projections made last December probably will be modified in future years after lawmakers last session passed legislation to address mandatory-minimum sentences and give judges more discretion in granting paroles or releases to offenders convicted of some drug-related crimes.

“We do expect that those will have a correctional impact reducing the population,” Johnson said. “But the extent of that decrease, we’re going to have to wait and see what it does.”

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