A bill that supporters say will address some of the racial disparities in Iowa’s prison system cleared the Iowa House and Senate Wednesday.
Dave Dawson, a prosecutor in the Woodbury County Attorney’s office, has been serving in the Iowa House since January of 2013.
“In most years we pass bills that enhance penalties, lengthen sentences, have longer prison terms,” Dawson told reporters. “This is the first time in the four years that I have served that we have done any criminal justice reform that actually reduces penalties in a significant way for felons.”
Representative Ken Rizer, a Republican from Cedar Rapids, called the bill a “grand compromise.”
“We think this will go a long ways towards achieving both what the governor and the chief justice said were important in terms of judicial reform,” Rizer said.
In January, Governor Branstad and the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court urged lawmakers to take a “fresh look” at criminal sentencing reform. Nearly 10 percent of the black men in Iowa are either in prison or on parole. Only two other states have a higher percentage of black prisoners.
If the bill that cleared the Iowa House and Senate becomes law, some non-violent felons in prison on a drug-related crime could be released early by the Parole Board. Dawson said that will free up money being spent on prisons, so the state can hire more parole officers.
“They’ve found that intensive parole supervision for the African American community reduces recidivism rates,” Dawson said. “And they could also use some of the money for funding drug court programs instead of sending more people to prison.”
There are no mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana-related convictions in Iowa, but there are for other non-violent drug crimes. This bill would give judges more discretion at sentencing.
Half of the inmates in an Iowa prison doing time for second degree robbery are African American. Dawson said the bill would give judges more leeway when sentencing a person for a second degree robbery conviction as well.
“Possibly instead of having to serve the full seven years, the judge would be given discretion to impose a five-, six- or seven-year sentence based on the factors of prior criminal history, risk assessment and those types of things,” Dawson said.
In addition, this bill would give prosecutors the option of a new, third degree robbery charge and give judges more flexibility in sentencing.
“I think we’ve got a very smart public policy and enhanced public safety bill here,” said Senator Steve Sodders, a Democrat from State Center who worked on the bill.
One portion of the bill would increase prison time for those convicted of child endangerment causing death. It also increases the period of time children who’ve been abused have to report the crime once they become an adult.