Public Safety

Iowa's meth problem leads to harsh prison terms

Federal drug offenders here sentenced to average 111 months

Peter Deegan Jr., the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Iowa, is photographed Sept. 22, 2017, in his office in Cedar Rapids. “The fact that federal drug cases in Iowa so often involve methamphetamine likely contributes to the length of the federal sentences in Iowa,” Deegan said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Peter Deegan Jr., the U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Iowa, is photographed Sept. 22, 2017, in his office in Cedar Rapids. “The fact that federal drug cases in Iowa so often involve methamphetamine likely contributes to the length of the federal sentences in Iowa,” Deegan said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

A national survey that mapped out the most common federal drug offenses and the average prison sentences for them found Iowa imposes the longest times behind bars in the country.

The survey, conducted by Detox.net, an addiction online resource center affiliated with a company that operates 20 rehab centers nationwide, showed that methamphetamine is the most prevalent of drug-related offenses in about 30 states, including Iowa. But the length of prison time for federal drug offenses varies greatly.

In Iowa, 40.5 percent of all federal offenses are drug related — and the most common of those is meth-related. The average prison time for drug related crimes in the state is 111 months or just over nine years — the highest in the nation.

The study notes there is a big disparity in prison sentencing throughout the country for federal drug offenses. At the opposite end of Iowa’s 111 month average is Arizona’s average of just 17 months.

For its study, Detox.net examined federal sentencing statistics on each state for fiscal 2017 compiled for the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Peter Deegan Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, said he generally agrees with findings from the study, but said many factors impact the numbers and explain why drug sentences may be higher here.

Statistics from the Sentencing Commission show that of all 316 federal drug cases prosecuted in the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa in 2017, 72.2 percent of them involved meth. That’s far higher than the national average of 34.6 percent.

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Under sentencing guidelines, meth cases generally are treated more sternly than other types of drug cases like, for example, marijuana.

The study shows Iowa is below the national average in federal marijuana cases — with only 1.9 percent here compared with the national average of 18.7 percent.

“The fact that federal drug cases in Iowa so often involve methamphetamine likely contributes to the length of the federal sentences in Iowa,” Deegan said.

He noted the statistics show 228 federal methamphetamine cases were prosecuted in Iowa in 2017, compared with six marijuana cases.

Another factor that can contribute to the length of sentencing is the defendant’s criminal history, Deegan said.

“Our office focuses on prosecuting the most dangerous offenders in our community in all types of cases including drug crimes, and a key indicator of dangerousness is criminal history,” Deegan said. “An offender’s criminal history also will generally tend to increase an offender’s sentencing exposure under the federal criminal code and federal sentencing guidelines.”

Other findings in the study show how drug-related guilty pleas and cases sending individuals to prison differ from state to state:

l Offenders in Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, New Hampshire and West Virginia all pleaded guilty in fiscal 2017 to the offense, according to the sentencing statistics. Offenders in Iowa committing drug-related crimes were more likely than in any other state to contest criminal charges and go to trial, with only 93 percent of all drug offenses ending in guilty pleas.

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l If an offender commits a drug-related offense in Iowa, there’s a 97.2 percent chance he or she will serve prison time. The chance rose to 100 percent in Delaware, where a drug offender was “guaranteed” time behind bars, but dropped to 62.5 percent in Rhode Island, the study found.

Drug use in America is increasing, according to the 2017 National Drug Use and Health Survey conducted under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The survey found 30.6 million Americans age 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past month, an increase of 6 percent from a 2016 survey.

Illegal drugs also seem to be more accessible, with an estimated $100 billion of illegal drugs sold annually in the United States, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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