Iowa has an incarceration crisis of global proportions

Iowa Has An Incarceration Crisis Of Global Proportions

If Iowa were its own country, it would have the world’s second-highest incarceration rate, ahead of every other country save the United States.

According to a research released this month by the Prison Policy Initiative, most U.S. states incarcerate a higher percentage of their citizens than all foreign countries, including Iowa. It’s not that Americans are inherently more criminal than people from other countries. It’s because there are so many jail cells that we feel compelled to fill them.

Iowa’s incarceration rate of 582 per 100,000, slightly lower than the national average of 664, places it only ahead of El Salvador, one of the world’s most dangerous countries. The homicide rate in Central America is roughly ten times greater than in Iowa.

In recent years, Iowa lawmakers have given lip service to the idea of reducing the jail population, but they have made little headway. Last year, the number of state jail inmates fell to a 20-year low due to pandemic-related releases and diversions, but it has subsequently crept back up.

With around 7,800 convicts, the state’s jail system is currently 12 percent above capacity. Some county jails are also close to or at capacity.

According to Rod Boshart of The Gazette, the chairman of the Iowa Parole Board wants to fill the jails within the next two years. During the peak of the pandemic, the board expedited releases, but they fell to at least a 15-year low last fiscal year.

Letting people out of prison is a good thing, but keeping them out may prove more difficult.

“Now that the gates are opening from the jails back into the prisons and the numbers are rising, we just have to find new ways to be aggressive and think outside the box to both promote release and keep the community safe,” said Andrew Boettger, an Ames attorney who was appointed chairman of the Iowa Parole Board earlier this year.

It is a wonderful thing to let individuals out of prison, but keeping them out may be more challenging.

When John Neff, a local incarceration expert, reviewed data from prisons and community correctional programs, he discovered that prison vacancies are frequently filled by probation revocations.

In a recent letter to the editor, Neff predicted that the Board of Parole would empty the beds and District Court judges would replace them with probation revocations.

To put it another way, jail beds in Iowa don’t stay empty for long. Someone will be found to fill them by the system.

With an incarceration crisis the size of Iowa’s, no single parole approach will be enough to bring us back into compliance with international standards.

States and the federal government have spent decades constructing massive crime-fighting machines, including police departments with powerful unions and endless budget increases, multi-jurisdictional task forces to federalize what should be routine local enforcement, and a vast network of jails and prisons.

That approach, it turns out, isn’t very effective in preventing crime. It’s possible that it’ll increase the underlying problems that lead to crime.

Everyone appears to be a prisoner when all you have is a jail cell.

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