DES MOINES — Whether Iowa felons get their voting privileges restored after they’ve completed their sentences, as Gov. Kim Reynolds wants, may hinge on the ability of the governor and her fellow Republican legislators to find a workable way of balancing that with the rights and compensation of the felons’ victims.
Majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate who balked last session at a proposed constitutional amendment approved by the Iowa House say they want to study options for requiring that at least all victim restitution first be paid in full, and stipulating that some violent crimes mean the permanent loss of voting rights.
Critics say that would be a harsher standard than the current case-by-case arrangement. Reynolds wants to change that system to bring Iowa’s policy closer in line with other states’ — recognizing that former inmates who already may be struggling with poor income and job prospects deserve a second chance to re-enter society.
Researchers in the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ criminal and juvenile justice planning division studied 75,735 cases involving all criminal restitution payments over an eight-year period ending in fiscal 2017.
They found that only about 14 percent of the $166.8 million court-imposed restitution for 29,798 offenders convicted of felonies was paid. Payment was significantly higher among felons ordered to pay restitution of less than $1,000.
While restitution generally is due within 30 to 60 days, less than 10 percent of overall obligations were paid within one year, according to the analysis.
When the amount of restitution imposed for all crime categories — felonies and misdemeanors involving violent, property, drug, traffic and other offenses — was $1,000 or less, half of all obligors were able to pay 61 percent or more within a year, according to the study findings.
But the payments were just 16 percent or less across all eight fiscal years by half of all obligors when the amount imposed was greater than $1,000.
Restitution payments based on violent and felony-level crimes were considerably lower than those for lesser-level offenses. While the overall yearly number of restitution obligations across all crimes declined from nearly 11,000 to about 8,100, the amount imposed per year remained stable at $25 million.
“It’s not realistic to save a lot of money when you’re in prison,” said Tom Chapman, executive director for the Iowa Catholic Conference, which works with organizations that provide re-entry programs for people who have completed their sentences and supports Reynolds’ voting rights plan.
Earlier this year, Reynolds proposed an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would automatically restore voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences. Iowa is one of just two states that requires felons to petition the governor to have the rights restored; Reynolds said no one person should wield that power.
In the meantime, awaiting legislative action, Reynolds administration officials moved ahead with plans to “streamline” the current restoration process that requires felons to complete a survey and show payment of legal fees. They shortened the required forms to a single page and dropped a $15 fee linked to a background check.
The governor’s proposal would make felons eligible to vote once they complete their sentences — but not necessarily paid restitution. That would bring Iowa’s policy in line with about three dozen states and the District of Columbia.
However, the issue stalled in the 2019 Legislature. The House voted 95-2 to approve a resolution seeking to put the proposed constitutional amendment before Iowa voters by 2022. But Republicans in the Senate refused to advance House Joint Resolution 14 until they determined what would be required of felons. Senate Republicans wanted the legislation to also say whether felons should be required to have all fines and court fees paid in full; if there should be a waiting period before voting rights are restored; and if some violent crimes should bring a permanent loss of voting rights.
Sen. Jake Chapman, an Adel Republican who served on a Senate subcommittee that considered HJR 14, said the issue was tabled because a number of senators wanted what “restitution” to be more specifically defined and a list of heinous or violent sex crimes to be excluded.
“Iowa does believe in second chances. I support that, but we also need to make sure we’re not forgetting about the victims that are involved in these felony crimes,” he said.
He also raised concerns with an approach advocated by some to place the question before voters but also enact separate statutory language addressing restitution and the felonies to be excluded. Some recent legislative actions have been struck down by the courts, he said, and he was not willing to risk a similar outcome here.
“That’s a real concern for me, particularly with some of the decisions we’ve seen over recent years,” said Sen. Chapman, who expected “conversations” during the interim to craft acceptable language to consider during the 2020 session.
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For now, he said he was comfortable having the governor evaluate requests case-by-case.
“It’s one of the priorities of the governor’s,” the Adel Republican said. ”I think there’s a good chance that we could actually pass something, but to garner my support we’ve also got to bring the victim into the equation. Without that, I think it’s going to have some serious hurdles to pass the Iowa Senate.”
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, another Senate Judiciary subcommittee member, said requiring felons to pay their victim restitution in full would be more restrictive than Iowa’s current system, let alone expanding it to include court costs, fines, legal fees and other expenses.
Hogg said he favors restoring felon voting rights because it’s a way to reconnect offenders to the community after they’ve completed their sentences, reducing recidivism and costs.
Also, he said, “there is an economic inequality argument that rich criminals get their rights back and poor criminals don’t.” He said he would prefer to see Reynolds use her authority, similar to former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, to either restore felon voting rights by executive order or use that prospect to leverage legislative action.
“Gov. Reynolds has the ability to restore rights, and she should do it much more than she is right now, with a blanket executive order that restores rights,” said Hogg. “But if she’s not going to do that, she needs to use her authority as governor and get the constitutional amendment through the Senate.”
Vilsack and fellow Democratic Gov. Chet Culver used executive orders to make it easier for felons to regain voting rights. But Reynolds’ predecessor, former GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, ordered a ban on felon voting rights in 2011 during his tenure.
Reynolds has rejected calls like Hogg’s to address the issue by executive order, but she also has rejected some lawmakers’ suggestions that felons complete restitution before being eligible to have rights restored.
The Catholic Conference’s Chapman said his group believes felons who completed their sentences should pay court-ordered restitution to their victims — but requiring it be paid in full before a person could vote “might be walking towards realistically lower-income people never being able to vote and so I don’t know that we would support that.”
A change to the constitution must be approved by two consecutive Iowa General Assemblies in exactly the same form and then Iowa voters. So lawmakers still could adopt a resolution next session that could be considered in the subsequent 89th Iowa General Assembly and still be eligible for consideration on the 2022 ballot.
Tom Ferguson, a former Black Hawk County attorney who serves as executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association — which is neutral on HJR 14 — said the issue is complicated and needs defined parameters and verification through the Iowa Secretary of State.
“It has to be a workable solution so people know they’ve paid and have a way to check it,” said Ferguson.
He noted that some drug offenses are felonies with no victim restitution, while other lesser crimes may involve medical costs associated with injuries or damage to property or crimes involving deaths that carry a minimum $150,000 in restitution.
“It varies from defendant to defendant and their particular circumstances,” he said.
According to the Iowa Department of Corrections, any amount of money allocated to an inmate’s account — whether from an outside source, inmate job allowance or inmate private sector employment — is garnished by 20 percent if the inmate has outstanding court-required payments to be made.
Quarterly, the collected amount is sent to the court administration in each county, along with records showing how much was sent for each individual inmate.
At that point, the court disburses that money accordingly. Victim restitution payments take priority over all other payments when the courts are disbursing the funds, according to corrections officials.
When restitution is paid in full, courts begin allocating the funds toward other required payments like for court costs and fines.
In 2017, a total of $2,149,240 was disbursed from Iowa inmates toward victim restitution and outstanding court debts, according to the corrections agency.