Kim Reynolds says she will continue to push efforts to give offenders a 'second chance'
Governor Kim Reynolds gives remarks during the 7th annual Iowa summit on justice and disparities. Des Moines Register
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday she will continue to push ways to reduce recidivism and bias in Iowa's criminal justice system, including forcefully pushing a constitutional amendment in 2020 to grant felons the right to vote.
Reynolds, a Republican, also announced the creation of a new governor's working group assigned to improve resources for people leaving prison and re-entering society. She announced the group, which is expected to report back to her by December, at the NAACP's annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities in Ankeny.
"By and large, ex-offenders and those who have served their sentence are simply looking to move on and get their life back on track. They want to make up for lost time. They want to get a job and have a career and they want to support or have a family," Reynolds said. Allowing ex-offenders that chance could also help address Iowa's workforce shortage, she said.
Reynolds' Tuesday announcement is a further step in the efforts she made at the start of this year when she used her annual Condition of the State address in January to promote a constitutional amendment to allow felons to vote.
The proposal split Republican lawmakers. The measure, one of Reynolds' top legislative priorities, passed the House overwhelmingly but failed to advance in the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans.
"I am committed to working with all of you and the Senate to get that done this year," she told the audience at the NAACP summit.
Next steps for felon voting
During the legislative session this year, Republican senators said they had concerns about allowing felons to vote without fully paying restitution to victims. That restitution can total tens of thousands of dollars.
Some senators also said they wouldn't be comfortable allowing people convicted of certain violent felonies to vote even after they have completed their sentences.
Reynolds said she's been sitting down with senators to find ways to address their concerns without making it harder for felons to regain their voting rights than it is currently.
"Probably the thing that we’re looking at the most is maybe if there’s some exemptions to it and what that looks like," she told reporters Tuesday.
Iowa is one of two states, along with Kentucky, in which felons must apply to the governor's office individually to have their rights restored after completing their sentences.
Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, praised Reynolds for advocating for a constitutional amendment on felon voting rights, but said she would like to see Reynolds sign an executive order automatically restoring those rights for felons who have completed their sentences. That's something past Democratic governors have done in Iowa — and a past Republican governor reversed.
"I appreciate that the governor did this past session champion the felony voting and that’s really important to us. I will say that we support an executive order by the governor. We really do," Andrews told reporters Tuesday.
New group to produce the 'second chance initiative'
The recommendations from the new working group Reynolds announced Tuesday will form the basis for a set of proposals Reynolds will bring to the 2020 Iowa Legislature in January. She calling the proposals her "second chance initiative."
The group's work will continue after those recommendations are complete. It will look broadly at bias in the criminal justice system, including in policing, prosecution and corrections. Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, a former state public defender, will chair the group.
"We are very excited about this opportunity. We have been working with the governor for some time to make this a reality," Andrews said.
She said she expects the group to focus on issues like jobs and housing for formerly incarcerated people, as well as making sure they are able to pay their court debts and regain their right to vote.
She said it's also important to reduce the disparities that have made Iowa one of the worst places for African Americans to live, according to one recent study.
Earlier this year, Reynolds also encouraged employers to hire more formerly incarcerated people and signed legislation this year that limits the liability of companies that hire people who have past convictions.
Reynolds is also encouraging employers to attend two state-arranged roundtable discussions to "learn about the employment opportunities available with formerly incarcerated individuals." The first such event will be at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville on Nov. 6 at 8 a.m.
State Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames and one of five African American lawmakers in the Iowa Legislature, called the working group a positive step. But he said he hopes it doesn't curtail mental health supports and implicit bias training, which could help people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
"I hope that the referral to the working group does not bog down any efforts that have seen success in other areas, but also in communities here in Iowa," he said.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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