Gov. Kim Reynolds has positioned herself as the governor of second chances.
A year ago, Reynolds stood before the Iowa Legislature and delivered her first Condition of the State address. She proclaimed Iowa is a place where, “if you’ve made mistakes, you can find a second chance.”
Last week, Reynolds returned to the same lectern as the first woman elected Iowa governor, and with GOP legislative majorities intact. Reynolds once again preached the power of opportunity: “There are few things as powerful as the joy of someone who got a second chance and found their purpose.”
This time around, Reynolds’ warm thoughts were accompanied by a few tangible policies meant to promote greater access to opportunity. She focused a substantial portion of her remarks on a particular segment of the population whose success we all have a vested interest in — thousands of Iowans with criminal records.
It’s a pertinent and timely discussion. Iowa’s prisons are over their designed capacities by more than 20 percent. The incarceration crisis is compounded by the fact that the rate of ex-offenders returning to prison has slowly crept up in recent years.
The state has neither the money nor the political interest for the massive capital investment it would take to build more prison cells. Instead, the fiscally prudent and morally responsible route is to pursue policy solutions that help prepare inmates for life on the outside. Government leaders must rethink their approach to incarceration, with a focus on rehabilitation over retribution.
At the same time, Iowa’s future growth is seriously threatened by a shortage of workers to fill open positions. Offering additional education to people already in the workforce will not be sufficient. The state must attract and engage people from outside the existing workforce, and ex-prisoners represent a perfect opportunity.
To that end, Reynolds used her Condition of the State address to highlight the success of existing programs that train inmates, like apprenticeships in prisons and grants for some prisoners to take community college courses. She also said her administration is establishing a new home building program at the Newton Correctional Facility.
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To help inmates secure private sector employment after they leave the corrections system, Reynolds is calling on lawmakers to pass a law protecting businesses that hire Iowans with criminal records. She praised a couple of the Iowa companies already hiring qualified former inmates. Efforts like these will be invaluable to reducing prison re-entry rates, and building a sustainable workforce.
While economic success is important, former prisoners can’t re-acclimate to free society in a meaningful way if they are shut out of the governing process. As this board has lamented in the past, Iowa is now just one of two states that permanently disenfranchise people convicted of felonies.
Reynolds said last week she wants to change that. She’s asking the Legislature to put forward an amendment to the state constitution to automatically restore felons’ voting rights after they’ve completed their sentences. The governor’s endorsement is a positive development, but it is no quick fix.
Between 2005 and 2011, felons’ voting rights were automatically restored under an executive order issued by former Gov. Tom Vilsack and left intact by former Gov. Chet Culver. It was Reynolds’ predecessor and mentor, former Gov. Terry Branstad, who lifted the blanket order.
Now felons must appeal to the governor to get their voting rights. To Reynolds’ credit, she has granted nearly 100 such requests. Still, the process is an unnecessary burden that has left many former convicts confused about their rights and responsibilities.
Yes, the Legislature should make good on Reynolds’ request, but that will take years to complete. A constitutional amendment must earn support from two general assemblies and voters. The earliest that could happen will be 2022.
On that note, we urge Reynolds to heed her own words. She said during her speech last week, “The future I see isn’t around the corner, or after the next election. The future is now. The time is now to deliver on the promises we’ve made to Iowans looking for a way up.”
Reynolds has the authority to immediately revive the Vilsack order and automatically grant felons their voting rights once they’ve paid their debts to society. In doing so, she will secure her place as America’s second-chance governor.
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