Staff Columnist

Craft comprehensive state justice reform

Unsustainable prison growth requires wrap-around response

A guard tower watches over the vehicle entrance to the new Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, Apr. 10, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A guard tower watches over the vehicle entrance to the new Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, Apr. 10, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Justice reform efforts may have stalled in Washington, but plenty of opportunity remains at the state level — and there are 10,144 reasons to start now.

That number — 10,144 — isn’t arbitrary. It is the projected total population of Iowa prisons in 10 years, according to a new state-mandated forecast released by the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. Iowa prisons, already operating at nearly 116 percent capacity, would swell to nearly 139 percent capacity if the projections hold true and no changes are made.

The combined population of all prison facilities at the end of the fiscal year June 30 was 8,447 inmates. More than 200 are expected to be added before the end of the current fiscal year, which would exceed official capacity by roughly 19 percent, or 1,363 inmates.

The Department of Corrections defines official capacity as actual beds present in an institution.

Because of improvements at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, overcrowding is primarily a concern at the eight male facilities scattered throughout the state — Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Medical and Classification Center (Oakdale), Iowa State Penitentiary (Fort Madison), Mount Pleasant, Newton and North Central Correctional Facility (Rockwell City). Even with the Mitchellville expansion, however, the women’s facility is expected to exceed capacity by 12.7 percent in 2028. At that same time, the male inmate population is projected to exceed capacity by roughly 42 percent.

And, according to the most recent annual report from the Iowa Department of Corrections, this isn’t an inexpensive proposition for taxpayers. Average cost per inmate, per day is just under $96. So, for each day the Iowa prison population is 8,500 inmates, taxpayer cost is $814,725.

Thousands more are part of the correctional and justice systems within community-based programs. While these initiatives are far less expensive than full incarceration in state facilities, they do carry a price tag. Sex offender supervision, which is more often than not a lifetime consequence in Iowa and grows each year, costs $15.69 per day on average. Drug court is $20.56 per day, while residential commitments, such as work release, are $77.62 per day, according to DOC figures.

Clearly, if harm to self or others isn’t a primary concern, the state budget is better served by placing more inmates within community-based corrections. In fact, it’s a key recommendation of the Public Safety Advisory Board, which recently filed its report for the upcoming legislative session.



Specifically, the group wants additional changes to Iowa’s “70 percent” rule — a relic of the 1994 federal Violent Offender Incarceration/Truth-in-Sentencing Act, enacted by several states because it was required to access federal grants for prisons. (Between 1996 and 2001, Iowa received $22.9 million to build prisons and correctional facilities. Once most states had enacted these mandatory minimum sentences, the federal government discontinued the funding stream.) For certain crimes subject to this rule, those convicted must serve a minimum of 70 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, and the inmates earn time reductions for good behavior much more slowly. The Public Safety Advisory Board, based on a 2013 evaluation of Iowa’s rule, argues the minimums don’t serve public safety.

“Evidence suggests that 70 percent sentences disproportionately affect minorities,” their report notes. “Thirty-seven percent of offenders serving mandatory minimums are African-American, however, African-Americans comprise approximately 26 percent of the total prison population.”

Iowa lawmakers have made some changes for those convicted of robbery. In 2016, the rule was changed to allow those convicted of second-degree robbery to serve between 50 and 70 percent of their sentence. A new crime of third-degree robbery, an aggravated misdemeanor not subject to a minimum, also was established.

The board is urging lawmakers to also reduce the minimum for first-degree robbery.

Other recommendations include allowing judicial review and modification of special sentences imposed on sex offenders, automatically restoring felon voting rights, enhancing kidnapping laws to provide greater punishment for crimes involving children, and using a consistent cost analysis formula when evaluating programs.

While some of these recommendations could slow Iowa’s growing prison population, they aren’t enough to halt the climb, much less level the mountain. To address our massive prison problem, we need a massive reform effort. That is, if we are only looking to decrease the number of people currently in prison, we’ve not addressed the pipeline working to fill those facilities. Likewise, as we begin to push people more quickly out of jail, we need to prepare them for the transition and offer a true opportunity for success.


Lawmakers must recognize the value of funding the judiciary, which will allow expansion of innovative diversion programs throughout the state; where you live shouldn’t determine access to justice. We need more opportunities for young, first-time, low-level offenders to be held accountable without the lifetime stain of a criminal record.

Creation of mental health crisis centers to provide treatment rooms instead of jail cells for those in crisis was smart, but such facilities cannot be developed equitably by the mental health regions without state support.

Better policies need to be developed so that those already in the criminal justice system can remain connected to families and loved ones. We could start by lowering the fees deducted from money deposited in inmates’ commissary accounts, so that those providing money could save some for traveling to in-person visits.


Affordable housing must be developed, and local ordinances changed, so that previously incarcerated people can live with their spouses and children without fear of eviction because of a criminal history. There must be more opportunities for training that results in gainful employment. Ban the box on all employment forms statewide. Better yet, create a process so that those who do not reoffend for a certain period of time can have their records sealed or expunged.

Finally, we need politicians more concerned about the rising taxpayer and human cost of our growing prison system than about what will be printed on direct mailers during the next election cycle; and a public that places more value on reduced crime than increased convictions.

In so many ways, Iowa’s correctional system is ahead of the curve. Mitchellville has become an example of what a prison facility can be; a place where people who have made mistakes can learn to do better. A long-standing push for lower recidivism rates continues, with racial disparities much reduced.

Several nonprofit organizations, supported by thousands of volunteers, work each day to help those coming out of jails and prisons to rejoin their communities.

Let’s learn from and build on those successes as we craft a new, comprehensive vision.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513,

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