Our country, including Iowa, has a huge, expensive, unfair system of mass incarceration.

And it's the states, not the federal government, that incarcerate the vast majority of people in this country. To fix the problem in Iowa, we’ll need state leadership. While reforms are progressing at the federal level, here in Iowa, we must acknowledge that we’ve got some housecleaning of our own to do.

That isn’t the easiest thing for us. In Iowa, we’re proud of the many ways that we lead the region, the country, and the world. But when it comes to incarceration, in some important ways, we are lagging, not leading. The percentage of our prison population made up of people serving time for non-violent drug offenses is higher in Iowa (22.5 percent) than in our neighboring states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Illinois. The average time a person stays in prison for drug offenses is also higher in Iowa (2.3 years). But perhaps the starkest difference shows up when examining race. While African Americans comprise only 3.1 percent of our state population, they make up 26.2 percent of our prisoners. That disproportionality is significantly worse than any of our neighbors.

How Do We Get Back on Track?

We need to take a close look at the choices we are making about when to send a person to prison for a long time. In Iowa, that means carefully reexamining our approach to drugs. In 2012, nearly a quarter of the people in Iowa prisons were serving sentences for drug crimes, up from just 2 percent in 1988, largely accounting for the tripling of Iowa’s prison population during that time.

This explosion in growth has not come cheap: we are now spending more than $265 million a year on our prison system. Worst of all, the generational cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration is only getting worse, not better.

The lawmakers who put severe drug enforcement penalties in place thought they were doing the right thing for Iowa, because drug abuse devastates families and communities, and the need to act is clear. But since then, we’ve learned more about what works.

Concrete Solutions

It’s time for some fresh, smart thinking about our criminal justice policies, especially on drug enforcement. In Iowa, here are three not-so-farfetched things we could do in the 2014 legislative session to unclog our courts, jails, and prisons, while better serving our communities:

  1. Raise the legal threshold that triggers the presumption that a person possessing methamphetamine or amphetamine intends to sell it. Intent to sell carries a mandatory minimum sentence. Raising the threshold from 5 grams to 10 grams would still punish serious dealers more harshly than users, but it would better reflect the reality that people with serious addiction problems are heavy users who are likely to possess larger quantities.
  2. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level sales of controlled substances. That would allow the judge to use discretion in sentencing. This change is important because it reflects what we understand about these very low-level drug sales, which is that many of the people making those sales are supporting their own untreated addiction problem.
  3.  Eliminate felony sentences for repeat simple drug possession, keeping all possession crimes misdemeanors. A felony conviction haunts a person for life and can often mean exclusion from employment and other necessities. That only sets a person up for relapse and a return to the system.

At the same time, we should support lawmakers’ efforts to treat mental health problems and addiction outside of the criminal justice system. We need to invest in community-based, individualized treatment, which costs less and is far more effective than incarceration.

We have a big problem on our hands. But Iowans are problem solvers. If we work together to build Iowa solutions to what has become, unfortunately, an Iowa problem, we can dramatically improve our prison system, better serve our communities, and save millions for taxpayers.

Rita Bettis, ACLU of Iowa Legal Director

September, 2013


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