Criminal justice reform is very difficult. This session, the Iowa legislature has passed the first “significant” sentencing reform in years. The changes to the sentencing laws will allow some drug offenders to be paroled after serving half their term, allowing the parole board greater discretion when reviewing cases.
They also added a new robbery charge that is an aggravated misdemeanor. Because it is not a felony, it will have lesser penalties and will avoid some of the handicaps that follow a felony conviction in Iowa.
The legislature typically spends much of its time creating new laws with new penalties and increasing the penalties for many existing offenses. While this may be personally satisfying for the lawmakers, the unintended consequences have been troubling for Iowa as they have been for many states.
Prison populations grow and become more expensive over time. A crime that may have incarcerated a few dozen individuals in the first year, may, after a decade or more, have generated hundreds or thousands of convictions. If the sentences are also decades-long, eventually the prisons fill and the taxpayers groan under the burden of paying for the ever-growing and aging prison populations.
Judges should be given sufficient discretion and the number of mandatory minimum crimes should be limited as the judge can review the facts and circumstances of each case and better determine appropriate sentences.
And it is hoped the changes will help reduce the racial disparity of prosecutions in Iowa, where Blacks make up more than one-third of the federal and 25 percent of the state prison population with only 3.4 percent of the overall population.
Source: thegazette.com, “Iowa lawmakers approve ‘significant’ criminal justice reform,” Erin Murphy, May 2, 2016