ACLU: Fix Iowa prison overcrowding by changing drug laws and addressing mental health
Iowa Corrections Director Jerry Bartruff talks about his agency's approach to working with inmates and staff in an effort to curb the number of crime victims in Iowa. He spoke during a budget presentation on Nov. 29, 2017, to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Iowa's prison population more than tripled from 1980 to 2016, leading to overbooked correctional facilities and a boom in government spending on those services, according to a report released Thursday by advocates of overhauling the criminal justice system.
The American Civil Liberties Union report also highlights the proportions of convicts struggling with mental health or drug addictions. The report said that 57 percent of the inmates have some sort of mental health issue and that, as of 2011, 46 percent of inmates had a "current drug problem."
As of Thursday, 8,525 people were incarcerated in state prisons. Tens of thousands more are being supervised by the Department of Corrections, many of them through probation.
In 1980, fewer than 3,000 were in prison, and in 1990 about 4,000 were in prison. Iowa's prison population hit its high point of 9,388 at the start of this decade.
The study, released by the ACLU's Smart Justice Project in conjunction with the Urban Institute, analyzed incarceration rates, causes and consequences across the nation. It proposed changing laws regarding crimes, penalties, sentencing and other topics to slash the prison population and save hundreds of millions of dollars.
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said when he began serving in the Legislature more than a decade ago, he expected the state would address sentencing disparities. He’s been disappointed.
“Iowa could take a leadership role and we have not. That is something that is criminal in itself,” he said.
Abdul-Samad recalled a bill in 2017 that would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses. It also would have allowed judges to have more discretion on sentencing. The Republican-controlled House approved the bill unanimously, which was considered a major win for prison reform advocates. Republicans in the chamber spoke at the time of the need to address prison overcrowding.
The legislation did not advance that year out of the new Republican-controlled Senate. Abdul-Samad believes the issue got politicized amid concern from lawmakers of appearing “soft on crime.”
“There was a mindset that took it from doing the right thing, to political,” he said.
Abdul-Samad said he’s disappointed that other related bills this year, like a ban on racial profiling, won’t advance this session amid a legislative deadline.
Republican lawmakers who serve on judiciary committees did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
An Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman said the agency's work focused on using appropriations efficiently and promoting rehabilitation.
"While the department can't control the rates at which individuals are committing crimes and subsequently sentenced to incarceration, we do focus on the things we can have an impact on once someone is sent to us," said Cord Overton, the spokesman for the department.
Iowa prisons are at 124 percent capacity, a figure projected to reach 143 percent by 2027.
The ACLU report attributed crowding to arrests for nonviolent drug charges — admissions for these crimes rose 9 percent between 2008 and 2017, accounting for a quarter of all admissions — and noted that Iowa’s prisons are also disproportionately filled with minorities.
The imprisonment rate for black Iowans is about 11 times that of white Iowans — one of the worst rates in the U.S. The imprisonment rate for Latinos is double that of whites.
“The Iowa Blueprint shows the wide scope of the problems we face in our state as a result of mass incarceration and the urgent need to pursue reforms,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. “It provides vital information as well as inspiration for the next steps we must take to improve our criminal justice system and reduce the number of incarcerated Iowans.”
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The report said spending for the Department of Corrections has grown 132 percent since 1985. About $379 million was spent on the Department of Corrections in 2017, about 5 percent of the state general fund. That number fell to $374 million in 2018.
Funding for corrections reached a record $383 million in 2016 before falling slightly, according to state budget records.
The report offered several suggestions to cut Iowa's incarceration rate:
- Decriminalizing drug possession.
- Expanding social services and treatment for mental-health and substance-use needs.
- Changing the system for pretrial release, including eliminating cash bail.
- Eliminating crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities.
- Expanding access to early release.
More than 66 percent of new prison admissions in 2017 were for nonviolent offenses, the report says, such as drug, property and public disturbance crimes.