Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad drew a strong positive reaction from legislators and spectators today when he used part of his “Condition of the State” speech to call for criminal justice reform.

“It’s time for a fresh look at our criminal justice system in Iowa to ensure we’re doing the right thing for all of our citizens,” Branstad said.

Branstad praised the work of groups like the NAACP which have been raising concerns about racial disparities in Iowa’s prison system.

“Ensuring fundamental fairness of our system is a worthy goal, but a fair and more equitable criminal justice system also aligns with the long-term interests of taxpayers who fund our system,” Branstad said. “For example, in many cases tax dollars may be better spent on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.”

Nine-and-a-half percent of the black men in Iowa are in prison. Only two other states have a higher percentage of blacks in prison.

“We can take steps to make sure that when our criminal justice system does impose punishment, that we’re punishing the right person and that race does not play a role,” Branstad said.

Branstad’s remarks on the subject were often interrupted with applause.

“A minor crime should not be a life-long barrier to a successful career,” Branstad said, earning a few “whoops” even from the audience as well as applause.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller says the governor is “on the right track” with this.

“I think he’s opened a number of doors on a bipartisan basis on sentencing reform and, you know, I look forward to working with him,” Miller says.

Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, says some legislators have tried to advance these ideas in the past.

“Maybe this time we will see a real balance of justice for our youth and others in Iowa,” she said.

Representative Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, is a lawyer who’s worked on these issues.

“Hopefully he will be willing to follow through and actually approve legislation that does make some fundamental changes,” she says, “instead of, to be honest, some of the little things that we’ve done in the past that may look good on paper, but don’t really make a difference.”

Branstad called on legislators to “examine” the way drug courts are financed. He also called for reviewing the state’s laws on domestic abuse and juvenile court records. Some Republican legislators warn it will be difficult to reduce criminal sentences in an election year.

Photo courtesy of Iowa Public TV.