Government

Iowa doesn't share in national decline in prisoners

Report finds state's facilities remain well overcapacity

FILE PHOTO: Sunlight on the wall in a cell block at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
FILE PHOTO: Sunlight on the wall in a cell block at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

While the number of people held in American prisons dropped in 2017, the number of Iowa prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction hardly budged, a new government report found.

Iowa prisons continued to be filled overcapacity — at 115 percent, the second worst in the nation, the report found — and the state continues to have one of the worst records in the nation for imprisoning black people at a rate far higher than the racial group is represented in the general population.

The nationwide decline continues a trend seen since the prison population peaked in 2009, according to the report released last week from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The number of prisoners nationwide under state or federal jurisdiction by the end of 2017 had dropped to 1.48 million people, down from 1.61 million in 2009. The vast majority were held in state-run facilities, while a smaller share were in federal prisons.

At the end of 2017, states held 1.3 million prisoners, down 1 percent from the end of the previous year.

Iowa has no federal prisons, but that does not mean there are no Iowans serving time in federal facilities. The study counted people who are sentenced under Iowa’s two U.S. District Court jurisdictions.

Among the report’s findings for Iowa, at the end of 2017:

l Six jurisdictions had more prisoners than facilities were designed to hold. They are Nebraska (127 percent overcapacity); Iowa (115 percent), the federal prison system (114 percent), Delaware (110 percent; Colorado (108 percent), and Virginia (102 percent.

l Iowa had 9,024 prisoners under state and federal jurisdiction, a 0.1 percent decline since 2016 compared with a national average of a 1.2 percent drop.

l The vast majority of the Iowa prisoners are men — 8,218 compared with 806 women.

l More than 24 percent of the Iowa prisoners were black. That is a slight decline from the findings of a 2016 study from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that found Iowa had the third biggest racial disparity in the nation. In comparison, blacks accounted for less than 4 percent of the state’s overall population, according to 2017 census estimates.

Criminal justice reform has been a notable area of bipartisan agreement in Washington.

Last year, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sens, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island teamed up to introduce reforms for federal offenses.

President Donald Trump late last year signed the sweeping bill, whose goals included reducing sentences for some federal inmates.

The topic has united conservatives and liberals, providing an area of common ground among lawmakers and others who say the nation’s criminal justice processes are unfair, expensive and otherwise significantly flawed.

“The declines in prison and jail populations ... are encouraging, but still fall far short of what is necessary to end mass incarceration anytime soon,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project said in a statement.

According to the Sentencing Project, six states — California, New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Connecticut and Vermont — have cut their prison populations by at least 30 percent in the past two decades, a reduction the group attributed to “a mix of changes in policy and practice” in those jurisdictions.

Mauer said in his statement that the drops in prison populations were “heavily influenced by a handful of states” significantly reducing the number of prisoners they held, while a number of other states like Iowa either saw modest declines or increases.

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“In order to achieve significant reductions, policymakers will need to scale back excessive sentencing for all offenses, a key factor which distinguishes the U.S. from other nations,” he said.

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