At a time when it seems that all we can do within our nation is argue and cleave ever deeper the political divide, there is one issue that – maybe – offers us an opportunity to have factual, constructive conversations to remedy something that the majority of people agree on: the United States imprisons way too many people. The U.S. population comprises 5% of the world population, but we have 21% of the world’s prisoners. Our economy and our society pays too high of a cost for this rate of incarceration.
Nationally, we’re talking about just under a million and a half prisoners, although this 2018 figure is down 1.3% from 2017 and down 15% since 2008. The 1980s "war on drugs" is directly responsible for the spike in imprisoned nonviolent drug offenders, but President Trump recently signed the First Step Act, passed by both congressional chambers, designed to address the overbearing sentencing mandates that disproportionately affected men and women of color much more than caucasian drug offenders who entered the court system.
The remedies offered by the First Step Act include giving judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, easing mandatory minimum sentences, and encouraging inmates to participate in programs that may help them gain early release as well as help reduce recidivism. Such programs would also help prepare inmates for re-entering society by earning their G.E.D. (now known as HiSET – a more stringent educational program) by learning computer skills, cooking skills, auto mechanic training, etc., and by offering drug treatment and job fairs where they can submit their prepared resumes.
Taking a close look at Iowa, we learn that nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, property and public disorder offenses made up more than two-thirds of new prison inmates in 2017. In the Iowa Department of Corrections Fiscal Year 2018 Annual Report, Director Jerry Bartruff discloses some concerning trends that call for remedial attention from our lawmakers. Bartruff states, “Prison population has slowly continued to incrementally grow over the past several years. Recidivism rates have increased from 35.4% in FY 2017 to 37.8% in FY 2018.” As I’ve addressed in a previous column, women now comprise an increasing portion of the Iowa prison population, and it’s grown 20% in the last five years. Appallingly, Bartruff reveals that nearly 40% of incarcerated females have an IDENTIFIED (caps added) mental illness and nearly 97% of the women are on some type of prescribed medication. It’s little wonder, then, that the recidivism rate for women and men in Iowa is now comparable.
Iowa must also address an irrefutable racial disparity in our judicial and corrections system which has held steady from 2009 through 2018. African Americans comprise 3.8% of Iowa’s population, but according to the Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans, they represent 24.5% of the 2018 prison population. No, you don’t get to infer that crime rates are higher in the African American community. According to the NAACP, who has carefully studied this in order to get to the root of the problem, African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the national imprisonment rate for our black brothers and sisters is more than five times the imprisonment rate for whites. Please note: African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but they are 29% of those arrested, and then become 33% of those incarcerated in our state prison facilities for drug use. Someone, somewhere along the way gets the benefit of the doubt throughout our court and corrections systems, but much less so if you are a person of color.
Statewide, we’ve heard some conversations that I find heartening. For instance, Governor Kim Reynolds has called for Iowa to pass a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for people with felony conviction histories. She also supports a law protecting employers from lawsuits for hiring people involved in the justice system and programs that provide skilled workforce training for inmates. Director Bartruff cited successful re-entry programs in Des Moines and Waterloo that have helped reduce the African American recidivism rate two years in a row.
Other legislation to help reduce Iowa’s prison population and strengthen their living skills would be to decriminalize drug possession and increase access to medical treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders. Keeping in mind that justice should strive to be restorative, not just punitive, we can uncover cost savings and increase offenders’ participation in society. Another benefit to society would be the practice of consensus in governing matters.
Next week: Jim Wharton
Katie Colling is the retired executive director of Women Aware, a private nonprofit agency. She was elected to two consecutive terms on the Woodbury County Extension Council and serves on several civic-organization boards. She and her husband, Ron, live in Sioux City.