Government

State panel recommends streamlined application, but no executive order, on restoring felon voting rights

Iowa NAACP President Betty Andrews joins Gov. Kim Reynolds in March to advocate for the restoration of voting rights for
Iowa NAACP President Betty Andrews joins Gov. Kim Reynolds in March to advocate for the restoration of voting rights for felons who complete their sentences. A state panel studying criminal justice reform in Iowa on Wednesday recommended streamlining the application for felons seeking restoration of their voting rights — which begins Thursday — but declined to recommend Reynolds issue an executive order automatically restoring those rights, which Andrews advocated for. (James Q. Lynch/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A state panel of criminal justice experts convened by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will recommend simplifying the process for felons to have their voting rights restored after completing their sentences.

But the panel will not recommend that Reynolds issue an executive order that would automatically restore those voting rights, despite the advocacy of at least one member.

The governor’s Committee on Criminal Justice Reform on Wednesday approved a series of recommendations to the governor, state agency leaders and state lawmakers.

Among them was to better automate and institutionalize the voting rights restoration application issued to felons at the completion of their sentences.

It appears that will happen this week.

State Corrections Director Beth Skinner, one of the committee’s members, said during the meeting the department has been working to make that happen, and the new process should begin Thursday.

Advocates have pushed for a process that informs felons, before leaving prison, of the process to restore their voting rights.

“It should be a pretty seamless process,” Skinner told reporters after the meeting.

But committee members declined to recommend Reynolds take executive action to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences.

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Reynolds has said her preference is to restore felons’ voting rights by amending the state Constitution, a process that takes, at a minimum, three years.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have urged her to, in the meantime, sign an executive order that would accomplish the same thing. But Reynolds has resisted, saying she prefers to focus on the constitutional amendment.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa chapter of the NAACP and a member of the committee, urged the body to recommend Reynolds issue an executive order restoring felons’ voting rights.

Other committee members balked, including Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, state Public Defender Jeff Wright and Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Director Judy Bradshaw.

“My point in this conversation was sort of, that debate is outside the scope of what we’re working on here,” Gregg told reporters after the meeting. “We’re working on, ‘OK, what can we do better right now to make the situation better for those who are leaving prison?’ And the language that we settled on, I think, does that.”

Other recommendations include creating a grant program to support nonprofit programs designed to help individuals re-enter society after incarceration; coordinating educational efforts for prisoners; increasing behavioral treatment prison staff; and helping individuals close to being released learn how to regain a driver’s license.

Despite the committee not supporting an executive order, Andrews said she is happy with the rest of the recommendations and the committee’s discussions on criminal justice reform.

“I do think that there were a number of very valuable pieces that came through this,” Andrews said. “I think while there are a lot of things that we still yet need to look at, having the opportunity to sit down and start here, it’s been a great place to start. I’m pleased.”

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