Yay, the IA House Did Something Smart Today!!!

Earlier today,  the Iowa House of Representatives unanimously passed out House File 2064, which made me happy. In relevant part, the bill grants a judge some measure of discretion when sentencing a defendant for 2nd Degree Robbery (which carries a ten year prison sentence), as follows: under current law, a judge has no choice but to impose a seven year mandatory minimum, regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the defendant’s criminal record, and this 70% mandatory minimum period of incarceration allows for only about one year of supervised parole prior to discharge. Under the bill, a judge has discretion to impose a mandatory minimum of anywhere between 30% and 70% (based on criteria which would include the defendant’s prior criminal record, a validated risk assessment, the circumstances of the offense and the impact of the offense on the victim).

If House File 2064 becomes law, the relatively small changes it effects to current law will, over time, save the Department of Corrections many hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and will reduce the racial disparity in Iowa’s prison system considerably (approximately 50% of offenders serving a Robbery 2nd sentence are African American, compared to about 3.5% of Iowa’s general population).

More importantly, extensive research from across the country and from Iowa’s own non-partisan Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning and Advisory Division (CJJP) has established that low risk offenders (which some of these folks are, believe it or not) who are given the opportunity to spend less time locked up with high risk offenders (e.g., three to four years instead of seven), and more time on supervised parole (e.g., four to five years, instead of one), are less likely to reoffend – i.e., this sentencing strategy reduces recidivism, which is key to reducing the State’s overall crime rate. That’s probably why Iowa’s Public Safety Advisory Board has recommended reductions to the Robbery (1st and 2nd) mandatory minimums three times in past 3 years:  2014 report   2015 report   2016 report

Admittedly, the sentencing reform effected by this bill could be considered a “baby step” – it addresses only one of the multiple 902.12 offenses carrying a 70% mandatory minimum. The limited scope of the bill was initially very hard for me to accept, but it became clear mid-session that allowing judges some discretion when sentencing Robbery 1st offenders was simply not an attainable goal, at least not this term.

But … it’s a beginning, and while the bill’s impact on Iowa’s mandatory minimum sentences is relatively limited, the fact that House File 2064 passed the House UNANIMOUSLY is a pretty big deal, since the conventional wisdom seemed to be that the Iowa House was unwilling and/or incapable of passing any substantive criminal justice reform bills this session – I am proud that we proved those naysayers wrong, and that we did it with a united front. The House leadership could have easily killed this bill several times over – that didn’t happen, and I appreciate the leadership shown by the House Speaker and Majority Leader on this issue.

I also appreciate House Judiciary Chair Chip Baltimore’s work on the bill – he committed early to trying to accomplish at least something with regards to mandatory minimum sentences, and he ultimately drafted the reasonable and responsible proposal embodied in House File 2064, and supported it in his caucus and on the House Floor. I have no doubt that without said support, the House wouldn’t have been voting on sentencing reform legislation today, much less passing it.

Hopefully, the unanimous passage of House File 2064 symbolizes a willingness on the part of the entire Iowa House to consider other meaningful, evidence based criminal justice reform initiatives – to effectuate reform that is fiscally responsible, and which will, over time, reduce recidivism in our state, making it a safer place for all of us to live, work, and raise a family.

Iowa House File 2064 is a good bill and a good beginning; I’m proud to have played a role in passing it out of the House, and I surely do hope that the Iowa Senate and Iowa’s Governor (who, in his Condition of the State address, urged the General Assembly to “be bold” when addressing criminal justice reform) will also be willing to support House File 2064.

Stay tuned, right?

About Representative Mary Wolfe

Part time attorney; full time State Representative for Iowa House District 98 (East Clinton County)
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