Iowa’s correctional population is projected to grow by approximately 30% in the next decade, stressing facilities that are already at 114% of capacity. Part of this growth can be attributed to the fact that 1 in 5 Iowa prisoners is serving time for drug offenses, making it the largest driver of annual prison admissions. The average time a person stays in prison for drug offenses is also higher in Iowa than in many of its neighboring states. This is costing Iowa taxpayers approximately $95.85 for each day that a single person is incarcerated.  


Another reason for the growth in Iowa’s incarcerated population is a staggeringly high rate of recidivism:  71% of people released from Iowan prisons end up returning. This is partly due to widespread revocations of probation and parole for technical violations.  According to 2016 data by the Iowa Department of Human Rights, the probation population was the lowest on record in over a decade, while the probation revocation rate was at record highs. Research has shown that ensuring the swiftness and certainty of consequences for violating probation or parole is more effective than simply relying on the severity of incarceration.  


Racial disparities in Iowa’s justice system are also significantly more pronounced than in states of similar size, population, and diversity. A 2016 report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that black adults are arrested for drug possession at higher rates than white adults. In Iowa, the rate is more than 6 to 1 – markedly higher than the national average. This is despite data that shows that white and black adults use illicit drugs at roughly the same rates.


Overincarceration in Iowa also has an impact on its most vulnerable residents – children. A 2016 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that eight percent of Iowa children have had at least one parent incarcerated. The emotional and economic impact of parental incarceration can negatively impact entire communities.


Iowa made progress toward justice reform in both 2016 and 2017.  Most recently the Iowa Legislature passed several measures to combat recidivism and reduce incarceration, including by curbing mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, expanding judicial discretion to adjust sentences, and bringing down the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The legislature also tackled civil asset forfeiture by shifting the burden of proof for forfeiture proceedings from a property owner to the government and requiring a criminal conviction before money or assets under $5,000 can be permanently seized.


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