Sentencing reform legislation clears Iowa House

Brianne Pfannenstiel | | Des Moines Register

A bill approved Monday by the Iowa House of Representatives would give judges more discretion in handing down sentences for nonviolent drug crimes in an effort to reduce the state’s incarceration rates.

Supporters said the changes help return people who do not pose a public safety threat back to their communities while reducing the pressure on the state’s expensive and overcrowded prison system.

“I can tell you that prison overcrowding has been a perennial problem,” said Rep. Andy McKean, a Republican from Anamosa, where the state’s largest prison is located. “And I do think that we need to have our prisons available for the folks who pose a real threat to public safety, but we need to be looking at more alternatives to those who don’t and finding more efficient and more effective ways to deal with those offenders.”

Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in drug crimes, say the laws restrict a judge’s ability to consider all of the facts of each unique case and result in sentences that may not match the severity of the crime. That, in addition, contributes to high incarceration rates that cost taxpayer dollars.

According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, the state’s prison population currently is at 114 percent of its capacity, and the average daily cost of housing each offender is $95.85.

In an effort to address those issues, the bill would:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for Class C drug felonies and make eligible for parole those who previously were sentenced under those guidelines.
  • Allow judges to discard mandatory minimum sentences in some other cases if that sentence would result in a “substantial injustice” to the person and if doing so would not impose a threat to public safety.
  • Attempt to remedy some of the sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine, which are two versions of the same drug that carry substantially different sentencing standards.

“While it doesn’t go as far as I would like it to go … I think this is a great step forward for the state of Iowa in regards to sentencing reform,” said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. “And I look forward to further discussion about how we can continue to move the needle in a positive way.”

In response to a police shooting over the summer that killed Urbandale police Officer Justin Martin and Des Moines police Sgt. Anthony “Tony” Beminio, the bill also includes tougher penalties for those who attack police officers.

Iowa law already carries strict penalties for those who murder police officers in the line of duty, said Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant. This bill ensures that anyone who attempts to murder an on-duty officer also would serve their full sentence without the possibility of parole or a reduced sentence.

“An assault on an officer’s life is an assault on our entire community,” he said. “And we as Iowans intend to stand with our law enforcement.”

The bill was approved unanimously and advances to the Senate. ​

Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, delivers closing remarks on House File 579.