Investment must follow Iowa justice reform

What will Iowa communities do with the nearly 1,000 non-violent drug offenders made eligible for early release by the justice reform bill signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad this week?

Or maybe the better question is what will those rejoining society do with themselves?

Many ex-offenders return to families or friends in old neighborhoods, although that often means renewing connections to the people and circumstances that led them to crime.

Others are no longer welcomed in those spaces, either because relatives and friends refuse or housing policies prohibit tenants with certain criminal histories.

Either way, ex-offenders are released from prison with few resources. Even when housing is available, there is no money for rent and deposits.

While Iowa isn’t the worst of the states when it comes to restricting the rights of ex-offenders, it still has nearly 650 state laws on the books — more if local jurisdictions are included.

It doesn’t offer automatic restoration of voting rights, hasn’t removed check boxes for criminal history from job applications, doesn’t offer certificates of completion that can help ex-offenders find employment and doesn’t have a process by which criminal records can be expunged, sealed or otherwise limited.

Depending on the crime, Iowans can be barred from receiving public assistance, including participation in food and medical programs.

Any felony conviction makes residents ineligible for certain workforce development programs, unemployment, the Iowa student aid grant, service as a court interpreter and public office. Juvenile substance abuse program facilities and psychiatric institutions have the option of denying access based on past felony and misdemeanor convictions. Some crimes mean you can’t own bee hives. I’m not kidding.

The list goes on. Ex-felons cannot visit people in prison or those who have been civilly committed. They also can be barred from volunteering at their child’s care facility.

A cell at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015.
A cell at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison on Friday, January 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

There are roughly 680,000 people in Iowa with a criminal record. And thousands of inmates are released from Iowa prisons each year.

State and federal tax credits are available to employers who hire ex-offenders, but jobs are only one piece of the puzzle. Affordable housing is difficult to come by for the general population. Add an additional strike against a prospective tenant and the window closes further.

Cedar Rapids, like many Iowa cities, requires landlords to perform background checks not only on lease holders, but of each occupant in rental housing over the age of 18.

While the city does not make direct recommendation to landlords on whether they should rent to people with a criminal history, it does hold landlords monetarily responsible for the actions of tenants and their guests.

There are some programs, of course, that hope to bridge the housing and support gaps for newly released offenders. Catholic Charities’ Jail and Prison Ministry works to connect ex-offenders with community resources for work, housing and other needs.

Under the newly signed justice reform law, Iowa judges have more sentencing discretion, which is a good thing. The Legislative Services Agency estimates sentencing reform will result taxpayer savings of $227,000 by July 2017 and $757,000 the following year.

The state has also received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat prison recidivism rates. In the last fiscal year, about a third of released offenders were convicted of another crime. Efforts to reduce recidivism in minority populations is making a dent, reducing the number of re-offenders about 10 percentage points since 2008, but recidivism rates for the general population have remained steady.

The statistics make clear that reducing some sentences and providing judges more discretion is a start, but not enough. Additional housing similar to the Lundby Townhomes and Hinzman Center on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side is needed in order for former offenders to successfully transition.

Even better would be increased state investment in the types of programs — alternative courts, drug treatment programs, recreational centers, mental health services, skilled job training, mentorship programs, student financial aid and disproportionate contact resolution — that can stymie the flow of people entering the justice system and being bogged down by a criminal record for the rest of their life.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 15, 2016. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette