Staff Columnist

A novel idea: Only jail people who need to be in jail

A newly built Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison awaits its first prisoners in 2015. (The Gazette)
A newly built Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison awaits its first prisoners in 2015. (The Gazette)

The enormous population of Iowans behind bars is finally shrinking. All it took was the deadliest global public health crisis of the century.

Given the extreme risk COVID-19 poses to people living in incarceration, Iowa jail administrators are cutting their rosters and police officers are using their discretion to reduce new arrests.

A local police chief was recently quoted in a Gazette news story saying, “Everybody is doing their part. Our part is to quit sending people to jail unless they really need to be there.”

I commend law enforcement agencies for working to reduce jail intakes to a minimum. But shouldn’t that always be the goal? Shouldn’t jail cells always be reserved for people who really need to be there?

Evidently not. The state has struggled for years with its prisons being over capacity, and many of the state’s largest communities have similar shortfalls at their county jails.

Faced with the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars, some county jails have sent dozens of inmates home, and the state prison system has released hundreds of inmates. That’s not enough, and thousands still remain at risk as the number of positive tests at our crowded prisons grows — but it’s a start.

In my home of Johnson County, officials have repeatedly sought public approval to build a new jail with as many as 243 beds. They told voters they had done everything they could to reduce the jail population. As of last week, about 50 inmates were listed on Johnson County’s roster, a little more than half the jail’s 92-bed capacity.


County sheriff’s offices and city police departments do not have the authority to take up these sweeping jail diversion measures on a permanent basis. They are burdened by bad laws handed down by politicians. The recent jail population reductions were carried out with guidance and permission from state authorities and the courts.

In their great wisdom, Iowa government officials correctly recognized that jails and prisons are dangerous places to be during an infectious disease outbreak. What they have been missing for too long, though, is that jails and prisons are always dangerous places to be, even without an infectious disease pandemic.

People who break the law should be punished, we’re told. But putting people in jail isn’t a good way to deter crime. As one indicator, about a third of released prisoners in Iowa end up back in prison within three years, and many others have minor run-ins with the law resulting in citations or time at the county jail.

Iowa’s incarceration rate is slightly below the national average, but still higher than the rate in almost any other country on the planet. As of 2018, with 568 out of every 100,000 Iowans incarcerated, we are worse than Cuba, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The justice system adapted quickly to the coronavirus crisis, substantially reducing the incarcerated population in a matter of weeks. But there has been a crisis happening in our prisons and jails every day for the last three decades. It breeds violence, rips families apart and destroys livelihoods.

Recent experience shows us there is a different way. But only if Americans radically reconsider our habit of routinely putting millions of people behind bars.; (319) 339-3156

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