Smart Sentencing Reform

As we approach the second legislative funnel and enter the final weeks of session, the House continues work on priority legislation and the budget. This week, we passed a number of bills including HF 548 which improves stroke care by establishing a centralized database for stroke reporting. We also passed HF 571 to protect Iowans’ privacy by making 911 calls involving a minor or sensitive medical information, confidential. Another important bill I want to touch on is HF 579 which makes smart, cost-saving reforms to our criminal justice system by removing mandatory minimums for several non-violent offenses.

Iowa’s prisons are overcrowded and operating well beyond capacity. A large number of Iowa’s prisoners are serving time for non-violent drug offenses and the prison population is expected to grow by another 30% over the next ten years. This trend is unsustainable and due in large part to an increased number of drug offenders serving lengthy mandatory minimum sentences. HF 579 does several things to shorten sentences for non-violent drug offenders and eliminate mandatory minimums.

First, it narrows the disparity between drug weights for crack and powder cocaine trafficking offenses. Currently, it takes ten times as much powder cocaine to serve the same sentence as crack cocaine. This bill brings the two more in line with each other.

The bill also repeals Iowa’s Class C drug felony mandatory minimums which saves money, limits prison growth, and increases fairness for the lowest level drug offenders. This reform is retroactive which means currently incarcerated non-violent Class C drug offenders will become eligible for parole on July 1, 2017 subject to the parole board’s review.

Mandatory sentencing is replaced by smart sentencing in this bill. It allows courts to consider and grant sentencing outside of mandatory minimums when there is a compelling reason to do so and public safety is not at risk. This sentencing model reflects data that proves mandatory minimums do not prevent recidivism and can be eliminated for low-risk offenders without increasing crime. It is possible to implement smart sentencing reform and preserve the highest level of public safety.

While eliminating mandatory sentences for certain low-risk offenders, HF 579 also imposes stricter punishment on individuals who are convicted of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.  A person convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer will serve 100% of the prison sentence under this new law. The bill prohibits a person convicted of this crime the opportunity to reduce their sentence by earned time provisions.

With this bill, Iowa will join thirty other states that have reduced, eliminated, or reformed their mandatory minimum and drug sentencing over the past decade. The states that have enacted such laws have seen reduced crime and prison populations, huge cost savings to taxpayers, and a more balanced criminal justice system overall.


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