Support builds in Iowa Legislature for tackling justice reform

New approaches make require adjustment period, some lawmakers say

The jury box in courtroom 3C at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The jury box in courtroom 3C at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — It wasn’t lost on Iowa lawmakers that Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady doubled up on a call for criminal justice reform in their annual messages to the Legislature.

Branstad used his Condition of the State speech Tuesday to urge legislators to ensure “race does not play a role” when punishing lawbreakers in Iowa’s criminal justice system. He wants the Legislature to act on recommendations made by a bipartisan working group he appointed to research justice policy reforms.

“Ensuring the fundamental fairness of our system is a worthy goal,” the governor said, noting taxpayer dollars may be better spent on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.

On Wednesday, Cady called on lawmakers to end racial disparity in the criminal justice system and modernize the jury system.

Racial disparity in Iowa prisons


Sources: State of Iowa data for prisons (April 2015), U.S. Census ACS 1-year estimates for general population (2014). Chart by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

“Racial disparity is a community problem requiring community solutions,” he said.

That puts the issue on lawmakers’ radar, said House Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake.


“I think we’re on the same page,” Worthan said, but lawmakers will “struggle with funding those at the rapid pace they want to advance.”

Business courts, drug courts and family courts are “fairly labor-intensive, time-intensive,” Worthan said. Family courts, for example, require judges with additional training and staff to meet with people in on a regular basis “to monitor their progress and make sure they aren’t backsliding.”

“So they may be on a little faster track, but we can’t argue with the success these things are showing,” he said.

Given the success of the special courts, Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, said the state can’t afford not to find funds to make changes.

“They’re awesome,” Taylor said. “They’re effective, people want them and they deliver justice.”

Like Taylor, Senate Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, sees an upside not only for criminal justice, but for budgets, too.

“If we can get real, true sentencing reform going Iowa, we can make a lot of difference and it will help all of our budgets and the people we’re trying to help,” Courtney said.

The question, Courtney said, is whether the governor and Cady can get buy-in from the Republican-controlled House.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, thinks so.


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“I think there are many things, many things in criminal justice that the governor brought forward that we have already talked about a lot,” she said during taping of Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press. Upmeyer appreciated Branstad raising the issues without a lot of specifics. “Bringing people together to decide where we might go on this topic is the right way to approach this.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said it’s important to be “smart on crime.”

“Smart means use barbed wire and steel bars to keep dangerous people out of circulation,” he said. However, lower level offenders can be helped through drug treatment and other programs — “whatever it takes and reintegrate those folks back into their community when they’re not a danger to others.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, and Worthan said one challenge will be changing the attitude of lawmakers — and the public — about criminal justice issues, especially sentencing reform.

“We’ve talked tough on crime and mandatory minimum sentences for years,” Worthan said. “It’s hard to backtrack from those positions. We’re going to have to bring the public along on those things.”

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, welcomed the comments by Branstad and Cady as conversation starters.

“The door has been opened. The question is whether we are going to take the opportunity to make real change,” he said.

Technology and statistical information make it harder to ignore the racial disparities in law enforcement and the court system, Abdul-Samad said.

“It’s no longer in the eyes of the beholder,” he said.


Even if lawmakers agree change needs to be made, Baltimore said it will take time, probably more than one session.

“It’s a complex system,” Baltimore said. “It’s not exactly something that we sit down over a cup of tea and scratch out some stuff on a napkin and all of the sudden there you go and you’ve solved it.”



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