Guest Columnist

Iowa's probation and parole system excels

A quick phone call to the 6th District Department of Correctional Services could have improved a misleading guest column.

A graduation ceremony for members of the Sixth Judicial District's Drug Treatment Court program at the Veteran's Memoria
A graduation ceremony for members of the Sixth Judicial District's Drug Treatment Court program at the Veteran's Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The recent guest column “In pandemic, justice means addressing prisons” (TheGazette.com, April 14) does not paint an accurate picture of the Iowa community-based correctional system. After reading the editorial, I am left wondering if either of the authors has stepped foot in our state, visited one of our agencies, or met with one of our dedicated staff members.

Let’s begin by addressing inaccuracies. The authors cite a report by the Council of State Government Justice Center that reports 40 percent of inmates in Iowa were there because they violated the conditions of the supervision program. But they fail to reference the footnote with this statistic that notes, “Whether incarceration is a result of a new offense or technical violation is often difficult and problematic to delineate, even in states with available data.”

A quick phone call to the 6th District Department of Correctional Services (DCS) could have shed light on more accurate data. For example, 88.4 percent of all probationers sentenced in fiscal year 2015 successfully completed their supervision (did not get revoked to prison). And the resulting 11.6 percent that did get revoked to prison were a combination of both technical violations and new criminal convictions.

The column goes on to state that policymakers should rethink the way Iowa carries out correctional supervision. The authors had three suggestions: institute a graduated response system, rethink supervision conditions and focus community supervision resources on individuals with the greatest risk. Again, a call to the 6th DCS and we could have educated them. Iowa does all three.

Iowa passed an intermediate sanctions continuum into Iowa code in 1996. Iowa has been using intermediate sanctions for technical violations for close to 25 years. Responses include increased program requirements of substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavior or domestic abuse classes. Other intermediate sanction options include increasing the level of supervision and/or reporting requirements up to and including a placement in a residential facility. These commonly used practices balance the needs of rehabilitation and community safety.

This article urges a rethinking of the standard requirements of supervision such as drug testing and placing restrictions on travel. Those conditions are in the supervision agreement but are not enforced arbitrarily. Drug testing is an appropriate condition for those under supervision as a result of drug abuse. Most often, it is coupled with an appropriate level of substance abuse treatment.

Travel restrictions are necessary for the sex offenders or others when there are victim concerns.

And lastly, Iowa has been using risk assessments to determine level of supervision and program requirements since I started my career over 30 years ago.

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Let me debunk a primary element of their argument. In 2010, Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning published an Iowa prison population forecast report. The report showed the prison population in Iowa in 2010 to be 8,602 inmates. The report projected by the year 2020 there would be 10,409 inmates. Before COVID-19, the prison population was around 8,600 inmates. What happened to the other 1,800 inmates that were expected to land in Iowa’s prison system? Although there could be many possibilities, it would be safe to assume that a majority of those possible inmates ended up on probation supervision. If you ask any probation officer who has worked in the field for the past 10 years they will tell you they are seeing more high risk individuals on their caseload.

There is a movement across the country advocating for the abolishment of technical revocations. It is often argued that probationers get revoked for missing appointments. That does not happen in Iowa. It is worth repeating: that does not happen in Iowa.

Our vision is an Iowa with no new victims. Do we need to wait for your parents to be burglarized, a sibling to be killed by a drunken driver or a friend to be sexually assaulted before the system responds? Iowa has well trained and knowledgeable probation officers that use evidence based practices in their everyday work. It is part of our mission to prevent new victims by identifying destructive actions and behavior and intervening. Revocation to prison is just one possible response.

Iowa should be proud of its probation and parole system. The use of evidence-based practices and training, coupled with experienced staff result in positive behavior change of those under supervision. Probationers successfully completing supervision at a rate of 88.6 percent is exceptional and produces an increase in community safety. This all points to the fact that Iowa has one of the best community based correctional systems in the country.

Bruce Vander Sanden is director of Iowa’s 6th District Department of Correctional Services.

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