Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds finds inspiration in Oklahoma's mass commutation for non-violent prisoners

Governor envisions major rewrite of Iowa's criminal justice system

Gov. Kim Reynolds is interviewed in May at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Reynolds is pl
Gov. Kim Reynolds is interviewed in May at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Reynolds is planning to bring a criminal justice reform proposal to lawmakers when the Legislature reconvenes in January. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds plans to bring a “second chance initiative” to state lawmakers next session that will take a broad look at tackling issues of bias in the criminal justice system and finding ways to help offenders become self-sufficient after prison.

The Governor’s FOCUS (Fueling Ongoing Collaboration and Uncovering Solutions) Committee on Criminal Justice Reform — led by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former state public defender — will work to find immediate and long-term ways to reduce the number of offenders who return to jail and identify resources to assist offenders re-entering society. Members likely will consider issues relating to jobs and housing for formerly incarcerated people — many who still face court debt and restitution payments. The group is expected to report back to Reynolds by December.

Reynolds, who signed legislation last spring limiting the liability of companies that hire people who have criminal convictions, is encouraging employers to hire more formerly incarcerated people and to attend state-sponsored roundtable discussions on the topic.

The Republican governor, serving her first four-year term since winning election in 2018, said she also is looking at what other states are doing in terms of criminal justice reform to determine what might make sense for Iowa. That includes Oklahoma’s recent inmate release that was the largest commutation in U.S. history. A total of 527 inmates had their sentences commuted, and at least 462 non-violent inmates were released from prison. Previously, Oklahoma had passed reforms that turned some low-level felonies into misdemeanors.

In a recent interview, Reynolds discussed the potential for changing Iowa’s criminal justice system moving forward:

Q: How aggressive do you think your recommendations can be this next session or do you think the big changes probably are going to come more in the out years?

A: It’s a two-phased approach, and that’s what I have tasked them to do. The first phase is looking at recidivism because I’ve seen our numbers tick up, and how we can really start to reduce barriers for individuals who are moving back into society? I’m not limiting them to that, but that’s a big focus of what they’re talking about because I’ve asked for them to make a recommendation in December so I can incorporate that in my Second Chances program that we’ll be putting forth next year and then in January they will start the second phase, which will be more complex and will deal with the issues of a bias-free criminal justice reform. It will take a look at what that entails and what other states are doing and kind of do a deeper dive into what our numbers are. That one will take a little longer and be more involved.


Q: Do you envision at some point within your term a major rewrite of the criminal justice system in Iowa?

A: Yes. So we’ve already done a lot. We’ve kind of been working on it for a while. So like Oklahoma released 300 or 400 inmates this year and I said, ‘What are they doing? Check for me on that.’ Well, they have twice as many incarcerated as we do here in our state, and they have not implemented very much sentencing reform and we’ve been working on that. So I asked them to put together a side-by-side (comparison) so I can have a better understanding of where they’re at and what they’ve done and where we actually are at here in Iowa. So that will be an opportunity for this group to take a look at that as well and see if there are additional things that we need to do. So I think this can impact generations to come. But I just need to take a look at where we’re at and what we need to do to have an impact and, honestly, probably the biggest thing we can do is on the front end to help kids and individuals from entering into the system with the work-based learning and the apprenticeship programs and changes in the K-12 system.

Q: Could you see a point where you could release a number of inmates from Iowa’s correctional system?

A: Well, we just have to take a look at it. It was very powerful, very inspiring and anybody that saw that I think would have to feel good about that, but in the midst of all of that we never, ever, ever want to lose sight of the victims so that is always going to be a part of the discussions that we have. But that’s why I have to see where were they (Oklahoma) at, where are they at now, where are we at, are there additional things that we could do that would potentially have a similar outcome. And I don’t know the answer to that yet except for they really haven’t been working on criminal justice reform as long as we have so they just started some of our sentencing reform and that was a result of those changes and I think they must have went retroactive to apply it.

Q: If you looked at a pool would it be more of the lower property, misdemeanor and non-violent crimes?

A: Yes, they’ve done a little bit of that. But that’s why I put the task force together so they can make some of those recommendations. They’ll have the time. We’ve got a lot of great stakeholders around the table, we’ve got every side represented to start to walk through some of that stuff and make recommendations to me. So I’m not going to take anything off — I’ve been very open in the process. They’ll make the recommendations to me and then we’ll have to decide what we’re going to use or do in trying to move that forward and then we start working with the Legislature to see where their appetite is at with what we’re trying to get done.

Q: Iowa got to where it is, especially with its mandatory minimum sentencing and different provisions, out of a tough-on-crime approach and you’ll bump up against that any time you try to make changes.

A: But I think every state is looking at that. My team has reached out — they’ve reached out to Mississippi and, believe it or not, they’ve done some significant criminal justice reform; Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma — there are a lot of states that are really kind of addressing this and realizing that it’s the right thing to do, that people make mistakes and it doesn’t mean that it should define them for the rest of their lives. If they’re willing to make the change and we can provide them the support that helps set them up to be successful, I think that everybody is going to win. We’re going to reduce the recidivism. I can’t think of a better thing for victims than to have somebody turn their life around and be a productive citizen, and it certainly is better for our communities because it keeps them safer.


Q: Do you think this might get to a point where you would look at undoing the 70 percent mandatory sentencing law?

A: I don’t know. That is the whole reason that I have brought the people together with our different agencies who are really coordinating and working together to come at this from a holistic perspective. I’m so proud of the team and how they’re approaching this. I think we’ve got a great, diverse group of individuals, and they’re going to have that discussion and take a look at what other people are doing and then make the recommendations. I’m not going to say this is what I want to do and this and this and this. I want to really wait and see what they uncover and what their recommendations are. I could have a lot of follow-up questions, which they can help with also, and then let’s see what that package looks like as we move forward.

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