Sentencing Reform Aims to Make Iowa's Justice System More Equitable

May 12, 2016

New reforms to Iowa sentencing code in the areas of child endangerment, non-violent drug offense, and robbery were signed into law on Thursday. Gov. Terry Branstad calls the legislation "a balanced approach" aimed at making Iowa’s criminal justice system more equitable.

Child Endangerment

People convicted of child endangerment resulting in death in Iowa now must serve 30 to 70 percent of their sentence before they can be paroled. Though the crime has the sentence of 50 years, offenders have been immediately eligible for parole.

"You don’t even get through the appeals process before you’re facing parole reviews every single year, it just feel like the fight never ends," says Jeri King, whose 18-month-old granddaughter Kamryn Schlitter died as the result of abuse. "This really will help with the healing process, so that we can fight the appeal process and begin the healing process."

The law is not retroactively effective, so Kamryn’s father Zyriah Schlitter and his former girlfriend Amy Parmer, who were charged with her death, are still eligible for parole. But King says the reforms are a relief, since the legislation will help other families in the future. 

"We can [now] tell victims that have been through what Jeri has been through....that there is going to be a fixed punishment," says Nick Maybanks, the Linn County prosecutor who handled the case. "It also gives us a lot more flexibility in negotiating cases as well. So over all it's a great piece of legislation." 

Judges will determine the percentage of the 50 year sentence offenders must serve based on individual offenders and the nature of the crime. Criteria will include cruelty, torture, multiple offenses, and previous convictions. 

Non-Violent Drug Offenses 

Those serving prison terms for non-violent drug crimes in Iowa are now eligible for parole after serving one-half of their sentences. 

"This allows for the board of parole to have more discretion in reviewing the cases of those convicted of non-violent drug crimes by reducing the mandatory minimum requirements for those crimes," says Branstad.

The hope is this reform will lead to a reduction in Iowa’s prison population, while at the same to ensuring public safety.  

"Certainly we’re happy with this legislation," says Arnold Woods, president of the NAACP’s Des Moines chapter. "I feel comfortable that this piece of this legislation moved quickly. And that there’s a concerted effort to look at the legal system, the law enforcement system, a little bit differently nowadays."

Woods adds that he’ll continue pushing for reforms to Iowa’s criminal justice system, which incarcerates people of color at far higher rates.

Robbery

The new law allows courts and the parole board to use more discretion for robbery committed in the second degree, and creates the new classification of robbery in the third degree. This enables prosecutors to charge people which an aggravated misdemeanor as opposed to a Class C felony.  

"I think judges feel the same way as we do that sometimes the law for mandatory sentencing doesn’t work for everyone," says Woods. "So it gives them the ability to make judgments…the ability to look at individual situations and make determinations about exactly why a person did what they did do, and then make a reasonable decision about how they should repay their debt to society."