A total of 26 Iowa advocacy organizations today sent a letter to state and county officials recommending that they follow the advice of public health experts to make changes to Iowa’s criminal justice and legal systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter urges specific actions by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Board of Parole, and sheriffs and county attorneys of all 99 counties in Iowa: 

  • Limit the number of people being arrested. Issue citations and tickets rather than arrests.
  • County attorneys and judges should use their discretion to limit the number of people put into jail, including reducing those held on pre-trial detention. 87 percent of the people in Iowa county jails are there because they don’t have enough money to post bail.
  • County attorneys also should dismiss cases with minor offenses, such as drug possession.
  • County jails should release people who would be released in the next 60 days anyway.
  • Officials should limit the number of people who are detained or incarcerated for technical rule violations while on probation, such as testing positive for alcohol or drugs or missing a parole appointment.
  • The governor should commute sentences for anyone whose sentence would end in one year anyway. She should commute the sentences for people whose sentences would end in two years who are especially vulnerable because of heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, or otherwise have a compromised immune system.

Incarcerated people in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Housed in close quarters, many were already in poor health when they were incarcerated. This makes for a perfect storm for outbreaks of COVID-19.

Also, since non-attorney visits have been temporarily suspended in Iowa prisons and in some Iowa jails, the letter points out the importance of keeping people held in prison and jails in touch with their families and urges free telephone and video calls.

On any given day, about 16,000 people are in Iowa correctional facilities. That's the same size as the population of Clive, Boone, or Oskaloosa. About 8,500 are in Iowa prisons, which employ about 2,700 people. Another 3,600 are in county jails. Further, Iowa prisons are now about 23 percent over capacity.