116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s prison incarceration rate is at a 20 year low. The Des Moines Register reports that as of mid-June, 7,744 people were serving sentences in Iowa prisons, an increase of less than 1 percent over June 2020.
It’s been seven years since Iowa ended a fiscal year with fewer than 8,000 prison inmates.
It’s an encouraging trend, given that the state’s prison system still is 11 percent over capacity. But it may be fleeting. One major factor in the low rate was the state’s effort to accelerate the release inmates from prison and into community supervision during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the flip side, prison admission slowed, leaving inmates in crowded county jails.
As the pandemic recedes, we’re likely to see the incarceration rate increase. One reason is the cause of criminal sentencing reform has largely languished in the Iowa Legislature.
Efforts to create smarter sentencing approaches for non-violent drug and property crimes haven’t gotten much traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature. For example, bills decriminalizing some marijuana offenses have receive bipartisan support but failed to pass.
Instead, the Legislature has created new crimes. Its “Back the Blue” bill elevated a series of protest-related crimes to felonies. Although it’s uncertain how those steps might affect the prison population, they’re certainly steps in the wrong direction.
At the same time, pandemic precautions leave the state’s chronically underfunded courts system still dealing with a backlog of cases. The system is challenged during normal times to handle the flow of cases as the courts plead annually for more adequate funding.
Also needed are reentry resources that will assist individuals in mapping out a plan for success and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
What the pandemic showed is community supervision is a viable alternative for many inmates. Sentencing reforms could keep non-violent offenders from going to prison in the first place. Both would ease pressure on a prison system that’s seen incidents of violence that the unions representing prison workers attributed= to inadequate staffing.
We’d like to see lawmakers tackle these issues in 2022. With Republicans nationally campaigning on a perceived rise in crime, we’re not overly optimistic. But this is an issue where bipartisan compromise clearly is possible, and it’s the right thing to do.
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