DES MOINES — Motivated in part by stories from their districts, a pair of state lawmakers successfully pushed the most significant criminal justice reform passed by the Legislature in years.
Rep. Dave Dawson, a Democrat from Sioux City, and Rep. Ken Rizer, a Republican from Cedar Rapids, were key in getting approval last week of legislation that will:
Make some nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole earlier in their sentences.
Provide a less punitive class of robbery for nonviolent offenses.
Establish a mandatory minimum sentence for individuals convicted of child endangerment resulting in death.
The legislation, on its way to Gov. Terry Branstad for his possible signature, instantly was hailed by criminal justice reform advocates.
“This is a major victory for smarter sentencing in Iowa,” Greg Newburn, state policy director for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. “Iowans understand it doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year locking up drug offenders who don’t need to be in prison. This bill will make Iowa safer and save taxpayers money, too.”
The catalyst for the legislation was the story of a 4-month-old girl from Sioux City whose father fatally struck her. He was almost immediately eligible for parole, Dawson said.
A constituent relayed that story to Dawson, who asked Rizer to work with him on legislation that would establish a mandatory minimum sentence for child endangerment resulting in death.
Rizer said a Cedar Rapids-area constituent approached him with a similar story of a 17-month-old girl who was beaten to death by her father.
“They were shocked to think that this guy who killed that little girl would even be eligible for parole,” Rizer said. “So that’s what we’re fixing here.”
Other criminal justice reform measures were added eventually.
The package has three key provisions:
It requires anyone convicted of child endangerment resulting in the death of a minor serve a minimum of 15 to 35 years of a 50-year sentence. Currently, the average prison stay for the crime is 4.6 years.
Makes certain nonviolent drug offenders eligible for parole after serving half of the mandatory minimum sentence.
Creates a new, third class of robbery, which would make nonviolent robbery attempts an aggravated misdemeanor instead of a felony, allowing for lesser penalties.
The measures are expected to reduce the state’s prison population, saving taxpayer money — nearly $90,000 in fiscal 2017 and more than $400,000 in fiscal 2018.
“If you can let people back out into society and give them the supports to succeed, it’s going to cost a lot less money to the state than it would keeping them in prison,” Rizer said. “It’s a matter of individualizing the justice to make sure that the penalty fits the crime and that we’re getting people back out into society at a time that it’s safe to do so.”
The measures also are expected to help chip away at Iowa’s disproportionately minority prison population, an effort championed by Branstad and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady.
In 2015, blacks accounted for 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population but 35.8 percent of the federal prison population in the state and 25.5 percent of the state prison population, according to the state research agency.
And Iowa has the worst black-to-white rate of incarceration in the nation, 13.6-to-1, according to a 2007 study by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group.
Plenty of work remains. A panel of experts drafted a series of suggested reform measures. Only one — making most juvenile delinquent records private — passed this year.
Other suggestions included diversifying juries and reducing the cost of prisoners’ phone calls.
“The reforms that passed are good first steps to save Iowa tax dollars and safely reduce the state’s nonviolent prison population,” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said in a statement. “We hope that this legislation is just the beginning of Iowa’s journey down the road to a smarter, fairer and more cost-effective criminal justice system.”