OTHER VOICES: The Iowa Legislature Should Do What Is Right; to provide prompt treatment to imprisoned sex offenders | Opinion


While the Iowans want men convicted of sex offenses to stay in prison longer than almost any other category of inmate, they are free to lobby the legislature to specify such penalties in state law.

The legislature did not, but state data shows that these men often spend more years in prison than those convicted of non-sexual crimes with the same classification of severity.

People who have assaulted children or attacked and raped women or terrorized and invaded the privacy of victims are not particularly sympathetic. This probably made this discrepancy easier to admit for officials who might be able to change it. More recently, the Iowa Supreme Court said in November that the court system should not interfere.

But, in the interest of fairness even to those who have committed disgusting acts, let alone the reduction of the prison population, policymakers should act.

Why do people spend longer in prison for sex offenses? One reason is that they usually don’t start a multi-month treatment program aimed at reducing recidivism until shortly before the end of their sentence. The Iowa Parole Board almost never grants early release to inmates who need sex offender treatment but have not received it; other inmates are regularly released on parole after demonstrating that they can successfully re-enter society.

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The Iowa Department of Corrections administers the sex offender treatment program at Newton Correctional Facility. Until recently, just over 100 people could receive treatment at a time. About 1,600 more statewide were required to complete the training. New detainees are regularly added to the backlog. The prison could barely keep up with the treatment for those whose sentences were about to expire, so it was the inmates who entered the program.

To their credit, correctional officers have hired new treatment facilitators and are using classroom space from dawn to dusk to increase the number of inmates who can receive treatment at one time. They told a district judge they couldn’t be more aggressive unless Newton got more classroom space. Existing steps should start to reduce the backlog.

The Supreme Court ruling resolves complaints from seven people on the sex offender waiting list. They argued that because they had yet to receive treatment, it was almost certain that there was no evidence of their life change – good behavior, college classes, etc. – would not be sufficient to obtain parole. Several said they had been told, in error, before they were sentenced, that their prison terms would be short. Iowa City attorney, Philip Mears, who has been an advocate for the fair treatment of detainees for years, agreed to represent them, knowing that under state law he was unlikely to be compensated.

Mears called the waiting list effect a “silent mandatory minimum” specific to sexual offenses.

Other than Mears and the inmates, no one seems really bothered. The Parole Board has not publicly expressed any concerns about waiting lists. The Corrections Department increased Newton’s capacity, but declined to take further action, such as seeking to strengthen its community corrections operations so that they can accommodate inmates on parole and immediately provide them with sex offender treatment. . State courts have ruled that Iowa inmates have a right to due process regarding early release decisions, but they have said that right is not violated.

It is true that parole is discretionary – no one has the right to get out of prison sooner than the law says. And it is true that the courts can create harms when they begin to interfere with the spending decisions of other branches of government, for example by ordering new resources for the treatment of sex offenders.

At a hearing in 2019, Mears asked Sean Crawford, then administrator of Newton’s treatment program, about a proposal for the state to appropriate “another million dollars for the construction of … a space. additional treatment ”. Crawford replied: “This is part of the proposal, and that would be wonderful.”

Thus, as with many problems, this one ends up in the bosom of the Legislative Assembly. It becomes a question that lawmakers will have to grapple with again and again in 2022: What is the moral use of the state’s $ 1.2 billion budget surplus?

The governor and Republicans who control both the Senate and the House seem determined to spend some of the surplus on tax cuts. But will the state also ensure that its residents are well served? And can we spare a few comparative pennies to be fair even to the unsympathetic and to help ensure that men who meet the criteria for re-entry into society are released from prison?


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