Gov. Kim Reynolds has announced the creation of a new working committee that will make legislative recommendations to address many of the issues that have long been inherent in our criminal justice system. Iowans must be willing to work across party lines to make a positive difference in our state.
We needn’t look any further than our Iowa prisons to ascertain how big of a problem we have.
The Iowa prison population has tripled in the past 40 years and is currently around 124 percent capacity. The problem continues to grow as that number is expected to increase to 143 percent within the next eight years. Many prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes and for simply having addictions. Our overcrowded prison population is not safe for inmates, it is not safe for prison staff, and it ultimately puts the safety of Iowans at risk from violent offenders being set free so we make room for new non-violent offenders.
We also are among the worst states in the nation for racial disparities in arrests. A 2013 ACLU study found that black Iowans were nearly eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar rates of use. The racial disparities in arrests have a profound long-term negative economic impact in minority communities which leads to a cycle of despair.
Mental health is also a major issue in our criminal justice system. A 2017 Iowa Department of Corrections report found that 33 percent of incarcerated Iowans suffered from a serious mental illness and 57 percent have a chronic mental health diagnosis. It costs over $30,000 a year to put someone in prison. It is more effective and less expensive to treat mental health and addiction issues outside of the criminal justice system.
We should join other states in expunging the records of those convicted of non-violent youthful indiscretions. Iowans should not lose economic opportunities for the rest of their lives over something as simple as marijuana possession as a young adult. When you have served your time and paid for your crime, your voting rights should be automatically restored and sadly Iowa is one of only three states where this is not done leaving around 50,000 Iowans disenfranchised.
While the criminal justice system negatively impacts some Iowans more than others, failure to address these long-term systemic problems does harm to the entire state. Our prisons are over capacity. We are among the worst states for racial disparities in arrests. A high percentage of our prisoners have mental health issues that our prisons are not equipped to help with. There is also the moral issue of denying others the opportunity of having a second chance to start over and that can no longer be ignored.
It is time for Iowans to reach across party lines to lead the nation on an issue that has been kicked down the road for decades.
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Jake Porter is a business consultant from Council Bluffs and was the 2018 Libertarian Party nominee for Iowa governor.