'Lifers' in Iowa prisons leveling off

Once on the rise, numbers serving life sentences now expected to decline

Attorney Thomas Gaul (right) has a word with Justin Marshall at Marshall’s sentencing at the Johnson County Courthouse o
Attorney Thomas Gaul (right) has a word with Justin Marshall at Marshall’s sentencing at the Johnson County Courthouse on April 26, 2013, for the 2009 Iowa City shooting death of John Versypt. Marshall received a life sentence in the case, and is the most recent "lifer" admitted to the Iowa Department of Corrections. (Kaitlyn Bernauer/The Gazette)

The number of Iowans serving life sentences in prison has been rising for decades — aggravating space issues in Iowa’s penitentiaries and racking up costs for things like food and medical care.

But that upward trend is starting to level off, according to a new report out of the Iowa Department of Corrections. And Iowa soon could see its life sentence population on the decline, said Paul Stageberg, administrator for the state’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.

“I think it’s going to go down for quite some time,” Stageberg said. “How low it goes, though, is another question.”

The number of people serving life sentences in Iowa has risen steadily from 111 in 1980 to 680 in 2012. This year, that number appears to be holding steady, and officials say they expect to see it decline in the coming years.

“There are benefits to us because (inmates serving life sentences) tend to be expensive to maintain,” Stageberg.

So far in 2013, Iowa has added only four new “lifers,” a much-smaller number than in previous years, according to Department of Corrections officials. Between 1980 and 2000, for example, the life sentence population increased an average of 20 people a year. From 2001 to 2008, it increased about 13 a year, and the most recent average sits at 11.7 a year, corrections officials said.

Experts cite several reasons for the leveling off and projected decline.

First, the death rate of “lifers” is approaching the number of new admissions. Also, recent decisions out of the U.S. Supreme Court have led to new sentences for some inmates, commutations for others and legal changes allowing lifers who committed crimes as juveniles to become eligible for parole.

There are now 46 Iowans serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, up from none a few years ago. Only one in that group was not a juvenile at the time of his crime — Rasberry Williams, a 67-year-old convicted murderer, had his sentence commuted by Gov. Terry Branstad in April.

Reasons for shift

In addition to aging offenders and commutations, Stageberg credits a decline in violent crime for the leveling off of life sentences in Iowa. He said there has been a gradual slide in class A felonies after a rise in homicide rates in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to more recent Iowa data going back to 1990, Class A felony convictions peaked in 1997 with 30. In 2012, according to the state data, there were 18 Class A felony convictions.

“Violent crime has been on a steady downward trend since the 1990s,” Stageberg said.

Uniform Crime Reports out of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation show that, for males ages 10 to 24 nationwide, violent crime arrest rates declining from 850.8 arrests per 100,000 people in 1995 to 423.1 arrests per 100,000 in 2011. For females in that age group, violent crime arrest rates dropped from 139.6 per 100,000 in 1995 to 99.7 per 100,000 in 2011.

As for the inmates who did commit violent crimes, Stageberg said, they “are not going to live forever.”

In fact, he said, the median age of death for someone serving a life sentence in Iowa is 59. The median length of stay for lifers who leave the system either by death or by having a sentence commuted is 17 years in Iowa.

“We are talking about a group of people who don’t have long lives because they have led lives without taking care of themselves,” Stageberg said. “In prison, you have no incentive to take care of yourself.”

The death rate among lifers is expected to remain strong in the coming years as there are 140 people serving life sentences in Iowa who are currently older than 59, according to corrections statistics.

“A bunch of people will be dying in the next few years,” Stageberg said. “There will be more people dying than people coming to replace them.”

Dennis Lee McKee, who was serving a life sentence for first-degree sexual abuse in Linn County, is one example of a recent lifer who died while in prison. Mckee, 61, died from metastatic colon cancer on Jan. 15, 2012.

The most recent lifer admitted to the Iowa Department of Corrections was Justin Marshall, 22, who was sentenced in April for the 2009 Iowa City shooting death of John Versypt.

Pros and cons

Lettie Prell, Department of Corrections director of research, said the state is encouraged that it won’t be spending resources on additional life-sentenced offenders. But, Prell said, she isn’t sure costs associated with lifers are going to drop immediately.

“Our take-away is that while lifers might no longer be a factor of growth, the continued aging population will require resources,” Prell said.

Offenders cost more to incarcerate as they age, she said, because the prison system provides them with health care and medicine and even therapy, if necessary.

The oldest person serving a life sentence in Iowa today is 90 years old. The youngest is 18. The average age of lifers in Iowa is 48, “which is older than the prison population as a whole,” she said.

Robert Rigg, director of the Criminal Defense Program and professor at Drake Law School, said he doesn’t know if the downward trend in the life-sentence population is good news or bad news. He said he’s encouraged by the drop in class A felonies, but the folks who remain are making it tough to save any money.

“The costs don’t go away because you’re in prison, and the longer you keep someone, your costs are going to increase,” Rigg said. “It’s an expensive problem.”

Rigg speculated that health costs and concerns might weigh into parole decisions for those offenders who now have that option.

“I think health care would be one thing the parole board would consider when deciding whether to release someone,” Rigg said. “Is that a cold calculation? Yes. But if they can release someone to not have to provide them health care, they might consider that.”

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said he’s not surprised that life sentences are on the decline in Iowa. He attributes that, in part, to improved methods of policing and other efforts to prevent violent crimes through aggressive prosecution.

But, Vander Sanden said, he’s concerned that driving that number even lower might be too high of a priority for the parole board. He doesn’t support a sentencing scheme that allows life with parole for juveniles convicted of class A felonies and thinks there should be a mandatory minimum.

“It leaves the actual time to be served up to the whim of the parole board,” he said. “And their decisions are, to a certain extent, overly influenced by pressures to reduce the prison population.”