116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Little did I know when filing my child endangerment bill (HF 2064) in January that it would become the answer to the Governor's and Chief Justice's call for major justice reform. What started as an effort to impose a mandatory prison sentence for beating a child to death morphed into something much greater, including adjustment to mandatory minimums for second degree robbery, creation of a new crime of third degree robbery, extension of the statute of limitations for child endangerment, and major sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenders. As frustrating as split government can be, this was a case where the demands of split party control actually drove a better result than originally intended.
The child endangerment piece came about because of an inconceivable inconsistency in Iowa law. In both Linn County and other parts of Iowa we've had people literally beat their infant children to death, receive the maximum sentence of 50 years, but then become eligible for immediate parole. My bill was an attempt to treat child endangerment resulting in death, if caused by intentional use of unreasonable force, cruelty or torture, the same as other crimes such as second degree murder or vehicular homicide. In its final passed form, it puts offenders away for between 15-35 years before they are eligible for parole, imposing a mandatory minimum for these child killers where there previously was none. For the first time in Iowa history, we gave the court discretion in the mandatory minimum with guidance on certain criteria to consider, such as previous convictions, multiple instances, and cruelty or torture.
Second degree robbery, a crime of intended theft with the threat or use of non-life threatening violence absent a deadly weapon, carried a mandatory seven year sentence before parole eligibility. The Iowa Department of Human Rights' Public Safety Advisory Board had long recommended reducing this mandatory penalty to three years, given both the disparity in crimes qualifying as second degree robbery and the huge racial disparity in resulting incarceration rates. Working closely with members of the other party, we compromised and agreed to adjust the second degree robbery minimum penalty to between 5-7 years. Again, we gave the court criteria to consider, such as previous convictions and victim impact, in deciding how harsh a minimum penalty to impose.
In trade for the change to second degree robbery we added a new crime of third degree robbery, which is like a second degree robbery only with minor or no injuries. This crime fills an important gap between second degree robbery and theft, making it more likely that those committing lower level robberies will be convicted, albeit for an aggravated misdemeanor instead of a felony. Like the child endangerment piece and second degree robbery piece, this will ensure that penalties more accurately reflect the crimes.
In an effort to protect children, we extended the statute of limitations for all serious child endangerment to 10 years after the victim reaches adulthood at 18. We have found that many abused children fear bringing their abusers to justice until they are well into adulthood, due to mental and physical trauma. Just as is the case for child sexual assaults and human trafficking, these child victims should have the same window of opportunity from 18-28 years old to seek justice against their abusers.
The final piece of judicial reform in this bill involved decreasing the mandatory penalty for some non-violent drug abusers. This reform was necessary as our current system focuses too much on penalizing drug offenders and not enough on rehabilitation and treatment. Such a focus on penalties over treatment contributes to large racial disparities in incarceration rates and enormous expense to taxpayers. With the advent of new, highly effective risk assessment tools, we now have the ability to identify those offenders who are safe to reintegrate into society and are least likely to reoffend under a parole or work-release situation. We objected to the initial version of this reform which decreased penalties for big-time drug dealers, but agreed to a version allowing the parole board to use parole or work-release after a minimum sentence for low risk class B/C felony drug offenders.
Finally, in a time of public skepticism over politics and politicians, I think this bill shows that Iowans can still, on occasion, work together for the good of all. While I started this article claiming this bill as my own, the truth is that other Republicans and Democrats with names like Dawson, Baltimore, Wolfe, Branstad, Sodders, Miller & Kinney played as big or larger roles than I did in making this happen. It's that kind of bipartisan teamwork all Iowans can be proud of. I look forward to seeing them all at the Governor's signing ceremony.
' Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Marion, represents House District 68. Comments: Ken.Rizer@legis.iowa.gov