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Iowa parole board chairman aims to cut prison crowding

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DES MOINES — The leader of the Iowa Board of Parole wants to eliminate crowding at Iowa’s nine prisons over the next two years.

“I have a two-year goal that we get the population down to 100% capacity or less,” said Andrew Boettger, who had been chairman since July of the state board appointed by the governor to assess the risk an offender poses, evaluate the total person and impose appropriate supervision conditions once the release happens.

“That’s just been a systematic problem that’s existed even before COVID,” said Boettger in discussing a correctional system that as of Thursday housed 7,786 offenders at prisons in Anamosa, Clarinda, Fort Dodge, Mitchellville, Oakdale, Fort Madison, Mount Pleasant, Newton and Rockwell City but with total design capacity rated to handle 6,993 inmates.

“Now, as things inch back up because the gates are now opening from the jails back into the prisons and the numbers are coming up, we’ve just got to find new ways to be aggressive and think outside the box to both promote release, but we’ve got to keep the community safe at the same time.

“So it’s a challenge but we’re going to tackle it.”

As COVID-19 swept through institutions where Iowa’s worst criminals are confined, it caused thousands of positive cases among offenders and staff and resulted in 19 deaths.

Iowa inmate population up over a year before but still down from record

In response, the state board, made up of four members and two alternates, stepped up its review process to release 6,375 offenders — 3,023 paroles and 1,440 work releases — into the community, for a net decline of 904, to reduce over capacity from 22% in fiscal 2019 to 9%. But that inched up to 12% at the end of fiscal 2021 on June 30.

“We’ve reviewed everybody that the Department of Corrections has sent us. It’s not as if we haven’t reviewed some folks. We have and the numbers are down,” Boettger said. “Objectively, we did a big push at the beginning of COVID and got some low-hanging fruit in the form of folks that were ready to transition, we just needed to get them in the pipeline earlier.”

However, the parole board chairman said the task became more challenging the past fiscal year as members reviewed risk factors and assessments from the state Corrections Department in weighing which offenders were the best candidates to parole or release to work in Iowa communities.

WATERLOO – Police are investigating a fatal shooting that broke out near a Waterloo convenience store as heavy storms passed through the area Tuesday afternoon. Aug. 24, 2021

As a result, total releases in fiscal year 2021 were cut by 3,032 from the previous 12-month period.

While the board’s three-member review panels face “high-risk decisions” in evaluating candidates for parole or release, Boettger said they either have to arrive at “unique and appropriate” situations to transition inmates under the conditions and constraints necessary for keeping them ”on the right track” as well as keeping the community safe or consider a second option of building another state prison — “which I don’t think anybody involved in the criminal justice system thinks is the answer here.”

“There certainly are some folks where we make a decision and we know that it’s a measured risk — that’s just the nature of what we’re doing. We’re making tough calls,” he said.

There also are situations where convicted offenders are allowed to leave incarceration because their sentences have expired — 987 in fiscal 2020 and 519 last fiscal year — which Boettger said “are the ones that give me the most sleepless moments.”

Another focus is the rate of recidivism, or situations where a prisoner is paroled or released to work in the community and then relapses into criminal behavior that requires them to be returned to incarceration. In fiscal 2021, there were 1,042 probation revocations, 679 parole returns and 400 work release returns.

“They’re not acceptable,” said Boettger, who noted that part of the solution is adequate funding for treatment and other post-release programs that give offenders the tools their need to transit into the community and the monitoring required to help them succeed.

Boettger, who worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 15 years before joining the Iowa Board of Parole, said much attention is paid to release candidate’s criminal history, especially violent or assaultive behavior, whether their offenses were rooted in drugs or a mental disorder, and getting down to “the granular level with each person” in assessing their risk.

“If it’s a measured, safe risk we’re going to take it. If it’s not, we’re going to sit them down and let them stay in prison for a bit longer,” he said.

To achieve his goal of bringing the prison population down to the system’s design capacity, Boettger said it would require reducing the numbers by one-half of 1% per month. He considered that to be realistic.

“I don’t know if we’re going to get there, but we’re going to try hard,” he said.

“We’re not going to be releasing folks that we’re simply not comfortable in doing that with,” he added. “It’s just going to take a lot of heavy lifting and hard work and digging down deep to come up with some answers.”

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