Guest Columnist

In a pandemic, justice means emptying Iowa's prisons

The Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The Linn County Correctional Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The COVID-19 coronavirus has taken a toll on incarcerated people and prison staff, alike, across the U.S. Now, it’s in Iowa’s justice system. On Friday, the state’s Department of Corrections reported that a correctional officer at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center tested positive for the virus.

Though this is the first such case in Iowa, it likely won’t be the last. As other areas of the country have shown, once COVID-19 shows up behind bars, it spreads quickly.

Iowa should be commended for the steps it has taken so far to protect its correctional population from the virus. Speeding up the release of 700 people approved for parole and work release last month was a smart decision. Prisons are already difficult places to practice social distancing, and in Iowa — whose correctional facilities are overcrowded by 22 percent — it’s almost impossible. Therefore, safely depopulating prisons could literally save lives. But there’s more the state can do without any risk to public safety.

According to a recent report by the Council of State Government Justice Center, 40 percent of people in Iowa State prisons in 2018 were there because they violated a condition of community supervision programs like probation or parole. 1 out of every 4 of these violations was technical in nature; Minor infractions such as filing faulty paperwork or missing an appointment with a supervision officer.

With COVID-19 now having penetrated Iowa’s prison walls, the state should release people who are locked up for these minor technical violations immediately. No one should face a potential death sentence over a victimless crime.

Beyond the imminent need to protect this population from the pandemic, Iowa legislators should work on long-term fixes to the state’s supervision system when they return to session.

There are more than 27,000 people in Iowa currently under probation. And approximately 91 percent of people in Iowa prisons will ultimately be placed under parole supervision after they’re released.

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The intention of community supervision is to hold individuals accountable in their community while also connecting them to the services they need to become a contributing member of society. However, in current practice, probation and parole in Iowa rarely meets this standard. Rather than successfully aiding re-entry, community supervision often serves as a pit stop on the path to prison.

With COVID-19 now having penetrated Iowa’s prison walls, the state should release people who are locked up for these minor technical violations immediately. No one should face a potential death sentence over a victimless crime.

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But if policymakers rethink the way Iowa does community supervision, they can begin to curb this problem and create a truly effective community supervision system.

First, by instituting a graduated response system, Iowa can cut down the steady flow of individuals from community supervision to prison due to technical violations. Graduated responses allow for a wide range of reactions to an individual’s behavior and permit probation and parole officers to tailor their response based on the circumstances and severity of the behavior. For example, individuals with a minor infraction may be referred to treatment or ordered to perform community service. In this system, a range of responses — positive and negative — are permissible to help curb behavior and revocations of supervision are reserved for only the most serious violations.

States like South Carolina have seen great success with this model. After adopting the use of graduated responses to technical violations in 2010, South Carolina saw the number of supervision revocations for technical violations drop by over 40 percent by 2015.

Second, Iowa can make community supervision more productive and effective by rethinking the conditions placed on individuals on probation and parole. Iowans on community supervision can face travel restrictions, be required to complete drug tests, and pay a supervision fee, among other things. Policymakers should ask themselves whether or not these conditions actually address each person’s criminogenic factors and build upon their strengths or if they’re just one more needless barrier to re-entry success.

Finally, Iowa should refocus its community supervision resources on individuals with the greatest risk and allow for refined probation terms. As noted by the task force recently convened by Gov. Kim Reynolds, “Historically, too much time and money has been spent on providing unnecessarily high levels of supervision for low risk individuals who are on probation or parole.”

Research suggests that placing individuals on overly intensive community supervision, particularly low risk individuals, doesn’t help and can actually undermine success and lead to worse public safety outcomes. On the other hand, failing to connect high risk individuals to the community treatment and services they need hinders their ability to successfully rejoin society.

By allowing people to earn time off their probation term after they’ve fulfilled their supervision goals and proven themselves to be law-abiding and productive citizens, policymakers can shift resources toward those who demonstrate a true need for greater supervision. At the same time, they can expand liberty for those who don’t.

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The costs of a failing community supervision system are too high not to act. Every day, people lose their freedom for somewhat arbitrary and unproductive technical violations. Others who are lacking the support they need return to crime and a prison cell. Taxpayers fork over millions of additional dollars toward incarceration in place of other critical state priorities. And families and communities are left without their loved ones.

Iowa must act immediately to protect people locked up for technical violations from COVID-19. And as soon as the legislature returns to session, policymakers need to stop the needless cycle of incarceration and pass thoughtful community supervision reform.

Arthur Rizer is the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy Director at the R Street Institute.

Jessica Jackson is the Chief Advocacy Officer at the REFORM Alliance.

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