Staff Columnist

Iowa considers stepping backward on criminal justice reform

A phone for inmate usage is shown in a cell block at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
A phone for inmate usage is shown in a cell block at the Johnson County Jail in Iowa City on Wednesday, October 15, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

As state and federal policymakers are brainstorming ways to reduce prison populations and establish alternatives to incarceration, Iowa Auditor Rob Sand wants to go backward.

Sand is asking the Iowa Legislature to pass a bill requiring prison time for people convicted of a felony for stealing $1,000 or more of taxpayer money.

White-collar criminals frequently receive soft sentences, Sand laments, and often avoid jail time altogether. His bill would not impose mandatory minimums, but would mandate some amount of jail time, perhaps only days or weeks in some cases.

“If we tell people who do this you’re going to be treated like a criminal, I think we actually can deter people from doing it because they’re less likely to risk that reputational value,” Sand told me in an interview last week.

I get it. Fraudsters are bad people. Bad people deserve to go to jail, or so we’ve been told. Most Iowans probably agree with Sand’s idea.

However, I challenge Iowans to reconsider the knee-jerk reaction to lock up people who do bad things. There are other ways to enforce laws and manage offenders, some of which actually work, unlike mass incarceration.

The open secret about our criminal justice system is that prison is not a great way to deter criminals. A significant body of research shows this, but people who write and enforce laws often ignore it.

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In a brief published during the Obama administration, the National Institute of Justice summarized it as such: “Prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences unlikely to deter future crime.”

There is relatively little research about whether short prison sentences are an effective deterrent to financial crimes like the ones Sand’s proposal focuses on, but given everything else we know about incarceration, we have to wonder.

In most cases, incarceration is not a strategy to prevent future crimes or physically restrain people who are imminent threats to others. It’s a tool to satisfy our desire for vengeance.

Tough-on-crime policymaking has been a disaster, making the United States the world leader in incarceration. There are an estimated 2.2 million people in American prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project.

It cannot be the case that Americans are simply more criminal than other people. This is a systematic problem.

Encouragingly, Americans are evolving on the issues of crime and punishment. There is an emerging consensus that mandatory sentences are bad, and that imprisoning people has negative unintended consequences on society.

I admit it is difficult to get too worked up about thieves serving short jail sentences for stealing taxpayer money at a moment when we know peaceful people have been sent away for decades for victimless crimes.

We must recognize that jailing people who “deserve it” does not set free the people who don’t. Quite the opposite, new sentencing mandates will grow and embolden the incarceration state, tightening its grip on current victims and claiming new ones.

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The movement to radically diminish the role of incarceration got national attention this month following the sentencing of Amber Guyger, a Texas police officer convicted of murdering a black man in his own apartment last year.

Many Americans were rightly frustrated that Guyger’s 10-year sentence seemed out of line with punishments handed down to people of color who have committed far less serious crimes.

In an essay published in the Appeal, lawyer and justice reformer Elisabeth Epps made the case that Guyger should be held accountable in some form, but not in a jail cell.

“Abolitionists want and work to create a world where prisons need not exist. A necessary step in abolishing prisons, a prerequisite to ending mass incarceration, is stopping the inhumane practice of keeping people in cages — even people like killer cop Guyger. Why?”

“Because people do not belong in cages,” Epps wrote.

We have other tools besides cages. There are promising models for restorative and rehabilitative justice that seek to right what’s wrong, rather than simply building more jail cells that we can’t afford.

Prison abolition is a radical movement, but one whose vision — “a world where prisons need not exist” — we all should embrace.

We can’t close the prisons tomorrow. But we can stop passing new laws to mandate prison time.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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