Study: Felony conviction rates up sharply in Iowa, nationwide

State's conviction rate nearly tripled in three decades leading to 2010

A cell in a maximum security cell block at the Johnson County Jail. (Gazette file photo)
A cell in a maximum security cell block at the Johnson County Jail. (Gazette file photo)

Every state has seen a dramatic increase in recent years in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from about 4 percent in 1980. The 2010 rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas, according to a recent University of Georgia study.

In that 30-year-period in Iowa, the percentage of the voting-age population convicted of a felony nearly tripled, from 2.05 percent in 1980 to 5.72 percent in 2010.

In fact, the ratio of the adult population in Iowa who are felons was higher in 2010 than Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia, the study found.

The new estimates in the study go through only 2010, before many states began to reclassify some crimes, scale back sentencing and take other steps to lower incarceration rates and ease offenders back into society. But they are the first attempt to gauge the state-by-state buildup of felons during a nationwide, decades-long surge in punishment: Less than 2 million people were in prison or jail or on parole or probation in 1980, compared with more than 7 million in 2007.

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common.

There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared with 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

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Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more non-violent criminals into the felony classification.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year, felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980.

“Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences.

“Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said.

Easing the path

Several states have moved in recent years to ease the path for felons, including restoring voting rights and prohibiting employers from asking job applicants if they have a criminal record.

Even some red-state conservatives support moves to erase the stigma and help people with felony convictions rejoin their communities.

Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said his group supported legislation to ease the way for felons to return to the community. He cited a Texas bill that would have allowed some felons to seal their criminal records, though the final law that took effect in September extended only to misdemeanors.

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An Iowa law that took effect in 2016, signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, allowed people who were charged with crimes including felonies to have their records expunged — but only under certain circumstances if the charge was dismissed or if the defendant was found not guilty at trial.

A total of 29 states have “ban the box” laws for at least public employment. The laws prevent a government or, if covered, a private, employer from asking on the initial job application if the applicant has been convicted of a felony.

Advocates have been pressing Iowa legislators to adopt a “ban the box” law. But a recent attempt at one in 2016, in the then-Democratic controlled Iowa Senate — did not advance beyond an early stage.

Some limited studies have shown that “ban the box” laws don’t work out as intended. While people with felonies may get past the first step, they ultimately are filtered out because they don’t have the skills or education required for the job anyway.

Racial disparities

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including for felonies, Phelps said.

In addition, many states elevated non-violent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

Iowa long has been notorious for its record of racial disparity.

A 2007 study by the nonprofit Sentencing Project found that only three other states had more blacks per capita incarcerated than Iowa.

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In a follow-up nine years later, the Sentencing Project found Iowa improved slightly. Its 2016 study now found four other states had more blacks incarcerated than did Iowa.

Stateline is an initiate of the Pew Charitable Trusts and provided by Reuters.

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