Public Safety

Iowa lawmakers approve 'significant' criminal justice reform

Advocate calls changes 'a victory for smarter sentencing'

A cell block at the new Iowa State Penitentiary is seen during a tour for Iowa legislators in Fort Madison on Friday, Ja
A cell block at the new Iowa State Penitentiary is seen during a tour for Iowa legislators in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Motivated in part by traumatic stories from their districts, a pair of Iowa state lawmakers pushed for legislation that ultimately became what legislators and advocacy groups are calling the most significant criminal justice reform passed by the Iowa Legislature this year, if not several years.

Rep. Dave Dawson, a Democrat from Sioux City, and Rep. Ken Rizer, a Republican from Cedar Rapids, were key in getting state lawmakers’ approval this week of criminal justice reform legislation that would allow some non-violent drug offenders to become eligible for parole earlier in their sentences, provide a new, less punitive class of robbery for non-violent offenses and establish a mandatory minimum sentence for individuals convicted of child endangerment resulting in death.

The legislation — which is en route to Gov. Terry Branstad, who said he wants to review the package before deciding whether to sign it into law but praised lawmakers for addressing criminal justice issues — instantly was hailed by criminal-justice reform advocates.

“This is a major victory for smarter sentencing in Iowa,” Greg Newburn, state policy director for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. “Iowans understand it doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year locking up drug offenders who don’t need to be in prison.

“This bill will make Iowa safer and save taxpayers money, too.”

The child endangerment provision got the legislative ball rolling this year. More specifically, it was the story of a four-month-old girl from Sioux City whose father fatally struck her. The father was almost immediately eligible for parole, Dawson said.

A constituent relayed that story to Dawson, who asked Rizer — a member of the House majority Republican caucus — to work with him on legislation that would establish a mandatory minimum sentence for child endangerment resulting in death.

Once their work was noted in the news media, Rizer said a Cedar Rapids-area constituent approached him with a similar story of a 17-month-old girl who was beaten to death by her father.


“They were shocked to think that this guy who killed that little girl would even be eligible for parole,” Rizer said. “So that’s what we’re fixing here.”

As Dawson’s and Rizer’s legislation worked through the Capitol, other criminal justice reform measures were added, and eventually it became the package that was approved last week and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

The package has three key provisions:

l It requires anyone convicted of child endangerment resulting in the death of a child or minor serve a minimum of 15 to 35 years of a 50-year sentence. The average prison stay for the crime currently is 4.6 years, according to the state’s nonpartisan research agency.

l Makes certain non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole after serving half the mandatory minimum sentence, giving more discretion to the parole board. This provision is retroactive.

l Creates a new, third class of robbery, which would make non-violent robbery attempts an aggravated misdemeanor instead of a felony, allowing for lesser penalties in robberies that do not threaten or cause injury.

“This is the most significant piece of criminal justice reform that the Legislature has done this year or in many years,” Dawson said. “In most years, we pass bills that enhance penalties, lengthen sentences, have longer prison terms. This is the first time in the four years that I have served that we’ve done any criminal justice reform that actually reduces penalties in a significant way for felons.”

The reform measures are expected to reduce the state’s prison population, in turn saving taxpayer money. An early estimate suggested the state could save nearly $90,000 in fiscal 2017 and more than $400,000 in fiscal 2018.

“If you can let people back out into society and give them the supports to succeed, it’s going to cost a lot less money to the state than it would keeping them in prison,” Rizer said. “It’s a matter of individualizing the justice to make sure that the penalty fits the crime and that we’re getting people back out into society at a time that it’s safe to do so.”


The measures also are expected to help chip away at Iowa’s disproportionately minority prison population, an effort championed early this year in condition of the state addresses by the governor as well as state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady.

In 2015, blacks accounted for 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population but 35.8 percent of the federal prison population in the state and 25.5 percent of the state prison population, according to the state research agency.

And Iowa has the worst black-to-white rate of incarceration in the nation, 13.6-to-1, according to a 2007 study by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group for criminal justice reform.

“We think this (new legislation) will go a long way toward achieving what both the governor and the chief justice said was important in terms of judicial reform,” Rizer said.

Plenty of work remains on the issue, should legislators and the governor choose to continue to address it. A state panel of experts, convened by the governor, met multiple times in the summer of 2015 and drafted a series of suggested criminal justice reform measures. Only one — making most juvenile delinquent records private — was addressed this year.

Other reform suggestions made by the panel included taking steps to diversify juries and reducing the rates for prison phone calls.

“The reforms that passed (last week) are good first steps to save Iowa tax dollars and safely reduce the state’s non-violent prison population,” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement. “With strong bipartisan support in both houses, and support from the governor and the attorney general, we hope that this legislation is just the beginning of Iowa’s journey down the road to a smarter, fairer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.”

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