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Report: Iowa prison population set to grow 39 percent by 2024

State officials believe managing population will address challenges

A view from the prison yard of one of the cell blocks of the Iowa State Penitentiary on Fort Madison on Thursday, March 31, 2011.  (Matt Nelson/The Gazette)
A view from the prison yard of one of the cell blocks of the Iowa State Penitentiary on Fort Madison on Thursday, March 31, 2011. (Matt Nelson/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A new state forecast projects Iowa’s prison population could grow by 39 percent over the next 10 years to an estimated inmate count of 11,317 that would significantly exceed the design capacity at existing state penal institutions.

The 34-page report prepared by the state Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning projects that the male inmate population would exceed the prison system’s design capacity by 37 percent and the number of female inmates would top design capacity by 10 percent, if the overall numbers grow from last June’s 8,119 count to 11,317 by mid mid-2024.

“This is a good indicator of what will happen in the future if we choose to do nothing now,” said Sarah Johnson, a division justice systems analyst and primary author of the report who is slated to discuss her findings with the state Board of Corrections on Friday. “Absent policy reform, something would have to change.”

However, state Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said the new projections follow past trends and there does not appear to be a need for new prison construction plans, given the successes the agency has had in managing the prison and community-based corrections system.

“The forecast is a prediction so it’s really not reality,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past when the forecast might show that we’re going to increase above what our capacity levels are, we’ve really put a lot of effort over the years into re-entry of preparing people sooner for release.

“We’ve been able to stabilize and lower our population over the years,” he added, noting that the rate of inmates who return to the prison system after release is lower than the national average. “We think everything is OK, but we’ll keep a close eye on it and go from there.”

Currently, Iowa prisons are housing 8,175 inmates in space designed to accommodate 7,276 prisoners — an overcrowding rate of 12.36 percent. In the past, the courts have been asked to intercede in cases where overcrowding of prison facilities has become excessive.

In the past, Iowa came under court-ordered consent decrees before 1996, including one that limited the population at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison to 550 inmates as part of a “conditions of confinement” challenge. The issue of a court-ordered “depopulation” order arose in California in 2011.

According to the CJJP report, increased prison admissions, probation revocations and direct court commitments are factors pushing prison growth. Also mandatory minimum stays of 70 percent for sentences of certain felonies, tougher sentencing for sex offenders, a rise in the admissions of inmates convicted of drug offenses and the housing of “lifers” convicted of Class A felonies are other factors which influence prison trends, the report found.

“One continued opportunity for change lies in Iowa’s response to drug offenders,” the report noted. “Iowa should continue examining drug offenders and drug sentences to ensure that those committed to prison for drug offenses could not be handled more effectively elsewhere or, perhaps, handled in prison for shorter periods of time.”

Increases in paroles, decreases in the average time served before release and increases in new aggravated misdemeanant prison entries were listed in the report as factors that are helping to reduce prison growth.

Lettie Prell, director of research for the Iowa Department of Corrections, said factors such as prison admissions and the length of mandatory minimum sentences being served are beyond the department’s ability to address because they are the purview of the Legislature and governor.

“The prison population forecast shows what the prison population would look like if policies, practices continue into the future,” she said. “This forecast is letting us know that we may want to look at changes in policies and practices so that we can craft a different future if we choose.”

The full report can be viewed at http://www.humanrights.iowa.gov/cjjp/images/pdf/Forecast2014.pdf.

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