So … yesterday the Iowa House passed Senate File 2201, An Act Relating to Kidnapping and Providing Penalties. I was one of three NO votes on the bill, and my mom told me I darn well better explain to everyone back home why I voted the way I did – so here goes:
There is a tendency for us – and by us I mean the Iowa legislature – to deal with our criminal justice system and the laws that make up that system in a largely reactive fashion – i.e., a horrible crime takes place and we quickly legislate a purported “fix” that is intended to prevent a similar horrible crime from happening in the future, or at least reduce the likelihood that a similar horrible crime will happen in the future. We draft and pass these bills in good faith, with the very best of intentions, often at the request of or with the support of a victim of one of these horrible crimes, or the family of a victim. Unfortunately, as a result of operating in crisis mode so much of the time, over the years our criminal code and sentencing structure has evolved (or devolved) into an overly complicated, convoluted and often inconsistent entity – one that (in my opinion) focuses primarily on locking people up for as long as possible and ignores the fact that sooner or later, for better or worse, the vast majority of prison inmates are released back into the community.
Across the country, state legislatures have begun to accept that this type of strict “tough on crime” stance isn’t necessarily the best way to keep their people safe. Here’s a very detailed overview of early (2011) efforts at “smarter safer sentencing” reform; here’s a recent February 2014 article with updates re various states’ sentencing reform successes. Over the past several years it’s become relatively widely accepted that by focusing on an evidence based approach to criminal justice and sentencing laws, states can achieve lower crime rates without increasing (and in many cases actually reducing) their Department of Corrections budget appropriations.
However, the only way this type of success story can happen is if all of a state’s relevant players – leaders from the legislative, executive & judicial branch, as well as reps from the DOC, DPS, law enforcement & community based corrections etc. – are willing to make a good faith, long term commitment to working together in a nonpartisan manner and (and this is crucial) promise to refrain from throwing each other under the bus at the first hint of problems. As a first step (kind of) towards such a partnership, the Iowa General Assembly, during its 2010 legislative session, created the Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB).
The PSAB is a nonpartisan organization made up of representatives from the judicial, executive, and legislative branches, as well as representatives of law enforcement, the Attorney General and County Attorneys Association, the Public Defender, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Drug Enforcement, citizens, victims’ rights advocates, and others w/specialized knowledge of the criminal justice system. The PSAB’s statutory purpose- it’s raison d’etre – is to provide the General Assembly with research driven, evidence based analysis and evaluation of current and proposed criminal code provisions, in order to facilitate improvement in the criminal justice system in Iowa in terms of public safety, improved outcomes, and appropriate use of public resources. I am a big fan of the PSAB – its very existence is an acknowledgement on the part of the General Assembly that being elected to public office doesn’t suddenly make one an expert on everything, and that when it comes to something as important as public safety, it makes sense to ask the experts for their opinion, and to give the experts’ opinions at least some consideration. Of course, in the end the legislature can pass what it wants to pass, regardless of any recommendations by the PSAB – but at least we’ll have a better idea of the pros/cons/possible long term collateral consequences of whatever path we choose to take.
So anyhow, back to the Kidnapping bill …. in July of 2012, in response to the horrific crimes carried out by Michael Klunder (who abducted two little girls and murdered one of them), the Iowa Legislative Council (made up of the leadership of the Iowa House and Senate) asked the PSAB to evaluate the effectiveness of Iowa’s current kidnapping laws, and also to provide specific proposals for legislation to increase the DOC’s ability to keep predators like Klunder locked up. At the time, I was impressed and encouraged by the fact that instead of drafting up a bunch of bills that simply quadrupled the penalty for all kidnapping offenses, leadership was willing to seek nonpartisan, evidence based advice on how to best improve the system, and I really looked forward to reading the PSAB’s report.
Which I was able to do in January of this year, when the PSAB submitted its 35 page report on Iowa’s kidnapping laws to the Legislature. (It starts on page 84 of this PDF document) The report contains a detailed analysis of Iowa’s kidnapping laws as well as an interesting discussion of the Klunder case; it also contains several recommendations re possible options for amendments to current law, which recommendations are supported by extensive data and research and which were approved by vote of the PSAB after considerable discussion. Two of these recommendations are embodied in Senate File 2201 – increasing the penalty for non-custodial child kidnappings (from a C felony to a B felony) and enhancing the penalty for repeat kidnappings. Now, I’m not convinced that simply bumping penalties up a level is the best way to keep Iowans safe, but …. I recognize that SF 2201 is the product of a nonpartisan, evidence based attempt to address a serious problem, and so I was prepared to vote yes on the bill when it came over to the House after being voted out of the Senate unanimously. (Here’s the Senate’s version of SF2201).
Unfortunately, when SF2201 ran in the House, an amendment was attached that, among other things, contains a provision that eliminates earned time for some prison inmates convicted of some crimes, but only if the victim is below the age of 16. This was NOT a recommendation set out in the PSAB report, probably because it really doesn’t have anything much to do with kidnapping; thus, the effectiveness of such a change in the law – and the possible negative collateral consequences of instituting such a policy on a piecemeal basis – has not been researched or evaluated by anyone.
And that vetting process really needs to happen, because several years ago a majority of the Iowa General Assembly voted in favor of creating the current DOC earned time policy, and the Governor signed off on it – and I have to assume all those public servants acted in good faith and for valid reasons. I don’t know all of those reasons, and I don’t know whether or not those reasons are still valid, and neither does anyone who voted in favor of the amendment, because no one who would have that information was ever asked to comment on the amendment, at least not officially. What I do know is that Iowans would be better served if we allow the PSAB to do its job, and provide the legislature with a nonpartisan evidence based analysis of the pros and cons of Iowa’s current earned time policy, as well as recommendations as to whether and in what manner it should be changed. Because as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, when it comes to the criminal justice system, sometimes the easy fix isn’t the best fix, or even a good fix. Sometimes straightforward “common sense” policies actually end up making Iowa a less safe place to live – e.g., the 2000 foot residency restriction for sex offenders, which was eventually amended based on evidence that the law actually made sex offenders more difficult to monitor
So that’s why I voted no on the Kidnapping bill – not because I don’t agree that we need to protect our children from predators, but because the House’s version of the Senate’s bill contains an amendment that hasn’t been vetted by anyone who actually works in, or with, or has any level of expertise re, our criminal justice system … and I believe that we owe it to everyone involved (including the people of Iowa) to do our due diligence before we do away with (kind of, sort of, for some inmates) a major component of DOC policy.
And hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to do our due diligence: SF2011, as amended by the House, has been sent back to the Senate, and the Senate can either accept the amended bill or “insist” on its own version (i.e., the one that doesn’t include the provision eliminating earned time for a limited number of inmates/crimes). If the Senate insists on its version, the bill will eventually end up in a conference committee composed of members of the House and Senate, who will try to reach an agreement as to what the ultimate bill should/shouldn’t contain. Assuming that happens, I hope what emerges is the Senate’s version of the bill, with the addition of a provision directing the PSAB to provide the General Assembly with a detailed report that analyzes and evaluates Iowa’s current DOC earned time policy and its efficacy, including recommendations re what changes, if any, should be made to Iowa’s laws dealing with earned time.
And I assure you of this: if that PSAB report concludes that Iowa’s earned time policy is no longer serving any valid purpose, I’ll be the first one to vote to eliminate it – but for all inmates, not just those inmates that victimize children. Because like every other member of the General Assembly, I want to pass responsible laws that make Iowa a safer place to live for everyone – after all, everybody is somebody’s child, right?