Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced this week she’s continuing her effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Reynolds is appointing a new working group intended to address issues such as stubborn racial disparities and rising recidivism while proposing potential reforms. She announced her push to craft a “second chance initiative” at the NAACP’s annual Summit on Justice and Disparities. Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former public defender, will chair the panel.
It’s a welcome announcement, addressing critical issues in Iowa.
The disparity between the rates of black and white incarceration in Iowa is among the widest nationally. Those disparities contributed to a recent study spearheaded by Iowa researchers that found our state and other Midwest states are among the worst places for African Americans to live.
We’ve called repeatedly over the years for sentencing changes, particularly for low-level drug crimes. Possession of small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized, as a start. We hope altering those penalties is part of the conversation.
Iowa’s prison population, though still below all-time peaks, hit an eight-year high during Fiscal Year 2019, pushed upward by returnees to prison from work release or parole. The governor wants to smooth the path for released inmates, including a focus on housing, jobs, job training and other needs.
She also continues to argue that felons who complete their sentences should have their voting rights restored automatically. Iowa and Kentucky are the only states where released inmates must individually petition the governor for restoration of voting rights.
We’ve praised Reynolds’ restoration effort. But it also serves as a cautionary tale for the future of the Republican governor’s justice reform drive. Although the GOP Iowa House overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring felon voting rights, the Republican Senate declined to take up the measure. Critics argued the amendment should contain limits on who would have rights restored, some of which Reynolds opposes. Reynolds was loathe to criticize lawmakers for inaction, or use an executive order to restore voting rights immediately.
Reynolds repeatedly has shown little inclination to use her bully pulpit or play political hardball with recalcitrant members of her own party resisting her priorities. That’s got to change if Reynolds wants to make real progress on justice reform in a state GOP that too often still clings to tough-on-crime political posturing.
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Reynolds has considerable political capital to spend on moving her party forward. In 2020, she should make it clear to lawmakers she’s not willing to wait until next year to give Iowans second chances.
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