Sentencing Reform Bill "Step in the Right Direction"

Supporters of a sentencing reform bill approved by the Iowa legislature this session call it a "step in the right direction," despite the fact that there is bipartisan agreement that more steps are needed to address racial disparities in Iowa's criminal justice system.

The bill is awaiting Governor Terry Branstad's signature.

According to Human Rights Watch, Iowa is one of two states where African Americans represent a share of the prison population that is 12 times greater than their share of the state population. The governor called on lawmakers to address this disparity in his 2016 Condition of the State address as did Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady.

The bill was supported by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. He says under the proposal, "people that could be safely released are released and don't serve years beyond what's necessary to protect the safety of Iowans."

Miller says the bill applies to mandatory minimum drug sentences and gives more power to the Iowa Board of Parole in determining when qualifying offenders can be released. The parole board could release offenders who have served half their sentences, are determined not to be at high risk to re-offend, and do not pose a risk to others. He says people who sold small amounts of drugs to support their own habits might fall under those criteria, but major dealers would not.

"When we look at drug convictions, we know that there is a high percentage of African Americans that are facing those challenges," says Betty Andrews, President of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP.  

While she would like to see several more steps toward reducing Iowa's racial disparities in prison, she says this is a start and that the NAACP will be watching how the parole board uses its discretion in determining who is eligible for release.

"The discretion is something we want to look at. And one of the things we've been pushing for is making sure there is adequate training in terms of implicit bias, and the parole board is culturally aware, and the assessment tool is culturally appropriate, and doesn't have a disparate backlash towards communities of color."

Some estimates are that the bill could affect 673 current inmates. Of those, it's estimated that 563 would be determined not to be high risk. Attorney General Miller says in the first year, as many as 200 could be released, based on this legislation. Miller says most would not be released all at once, but would transition to work release or some other Community Corrections facility or program.

Representative Chip Baltimore, a Boone Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee also served on the Criminal Advisory Board which made some of the recommendations for reform. He says the bill tries to recognize the hierarchy of criminal sentencing. Baltimore says this bill was a good effort to readjust some areas where there were some discrepancies.

"We try to take the most severe offenses and treat them the most severely, and the most minor offenses and treat them relatively leniently." 

A similar effort failed to win approval in the last legislative session. Baltimore says building political consensus for criminal justice reform takes time. But Attorney General Miller says it's part of a larger conversation taking place across the country, and across political parties and ideologies. "I think there's a recognition that there's some unfairness involved, that the mandatory minimum is very fixed and very inflexible and a lot of people were being swept into that that shouldn't be swept into the rigid formula."

Host Ben Kieffer led the conversation on IPR's River to River. Attorney General Miller, NAACP President Andrews and Rep. Baltimore join the show.