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A move in the right direction for Iowa drug sentences

With the signing of a bill by Iowa's governor, changes in the state's drug sentencing laws will go into effect on July 1 for some non-violent drug offenders. The bill is seen by many as a good start to returning a more reasonable perspective on criminal enforcement of drug laws.

Many drug crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences, both for crimes committed under Iowa's laws and for federal drug charges. Mandatory minimums have received much criticism during the last 20 years, as it became clear that they were leading to overcrowding in prisons and having damage effects on the minority populations that were most affected.

Traditionally, many crimes have sentencing ranges, where someone convicted could be given anywhere from 5 years up to 25 years for a given crime. This permits the judge to evaluate individual defendants and consider the facts of the particular offense, mitigation evidence, and anything else relevant to the case. Judges must have discretion to be judges.

Without this capability, judges are little more than rubber stamps, applying the mandated sentences that they have no say or control in. This also places too much control in the process in the hands of prosecutors, who can threaten severe penalties and then offer plea agreements to force defendants to surrender their right to a trial and capitulate to a "reduced" charge with a reduced sentence.

This may make for efficient processing of cases through the system, but it denies many any semblance of "justice," and leads to clogged prisons that cost taxpayers great expense. A further "cost" of the prison-industrial complex is the branding of many individuals with the scarlet letter of a felon.

This diminished their ability to find jobs, go to school, locate a residence and to escape further entanglements with the criminal justice system.

Source: desmoinesregister.com, "Branstad signs bill allowing early release of hundreds of drug felons," Kathy A. Bolten, May 13, 2016

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