Is serving four months of a 15-year sentence justice?

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull

Marion County Attorney Ed Bull, along with the county’s hard-working men and women in law enforcement, spend every day keeping the streets safe while respecting the judicial process and the rights of the accused. But, when the Iowa Board of Parole severely shortens prison sentences state laws call for and judges pronounce, is that respect being returned?

Bull recently shared three specific cases in which he calls the Board of Parole’s actions into question. The first involves a convict who was sentenced to five years in prison on burglary and drug charges. This suspect entered prison on April 1, 2019, and was released July 10, 2019.

The second is one with a criminal history dating back to 1999. Charges against this felon include going armed with intent, a sex crime against a child, delivery of drugs and assault on a peace officer. Since 2011, this person has been convicted of five additional drug crimes. On Jan. 10, 2019, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug-related offenses. He was released on July 9, 2019. Essentially, he served six months of a 15-year sentence.

Finally, a third criminal was sentenced to 15 years in prison on March 6, 2019, and was released on July 12, 2019. This person was found guilty of possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine and failure to appear on felony charges.

Bull said the Board of Parole’s job is to let people out of prison. That is a simple way of stating the Board’s mission in Iowa Code Chapter 205. It reads, “The board shall determine whether there is reasonable probability that an inmate committed to the custody of the department of corrections who is eligible for parole or work release can be released without detriment to the community or the inmate. The board shall consider the best interests of society and shall not grant parole or work release as an award of clemency.”

“Although I respect that, what the Board of Parole is doing is creating a mockery of our criminal justice system,” Bull said. He believes that the sentences should stick, or the sentence should say possession with intent to deliver is three months. He adds that the courts should be honest with its sentences, and that if someone who has a 20-year criminal history only serves a few months for subsequent crimes, it should be recorded as such.

“We should recognize we have zero truth in sentencing,” Bull said. “We should just be honest.”

Cord Overton, spokesperson for the Iowa Board of Parole, declined to comment when asked why felons with extensive criminal histories do not serve their full sentences. He referred to the factors weighed by the Board, per the Iowa Code. Those include:

  • Previous criminal record
  • Nature and circumstances of the offense
  • Recidivism record
  • Convictions or behavior indicating a propensity for violence
  • Participation in institutional programs, including academic and vocational training
  • Psychiatric and psychological evaluations
  • Length of time served
  • Evidence of serious or habitual institutional misconduct
  • Success or failure while on probation
  • Prior parole or work release history
  • Prior refusal to accept parole or work release
  • History of drug or alcohol use
  • A parole plan formulated by the inmate
  • General attitude and behavior while incarcerated
  • Risk assessment.

“Between 90 and 95 percent of all people incarcerated will return to their communities,” Overton said. “The department generally receives between 5 and 6 thousand individuals per year, and releases around the same number of individuals to either parole, work release, or discharge of their sentence. It is best practice to, when it is an option, gradually ‘step down’ the level of control over an individual, rather than holding them in prison until their release date, and sending them back to their community with no supervision at all.”

In the board’s annual report for fiscal year 2018, the most recent report available, Iowa had a 37.8 percent recidivism rate, or number of felons released who were brought back to prison. There were 12,499 deliberations in FY18. Of those, there were 3,954 paroles, 1,722 work releases and the imposition of 555 special sentences.

Release denials totaled 4,694 and parole revocations totaled 1,863. These numbers have steadily increased since FY16.

There were 6,067 victims registered with the board at the end of FY18, and there were 3,117 victim notifications sent out in the same period. As you can see, the victim and law enforcement are not listed as factors when considering parole. Overton deferred to the list of factors when specifically asked what consideration was given to victims, law enforcement who took time at taxpayer expense to build a case and prosecutors who also spent time and taxpayer money to get a conviction. He did not answer the questions.

The Board of Parole was created by the Legislature in 1907. It is comprised of one licensed attorney with knowledge of criminal law and correctional procedures; one person with a master’s degree in social work and three laypeople. The chair and vice-char serve full-time, while the rest act on a per diem basis. The chair serves at the pleasure of the governor, while the board serves staggered, four-year terms. The Iowa Senate approves all appointees.

Currently, the board is chaired by Jeff Wright. Wright is an attorney from Ankeny who earned his degree at Drake University. He continued to work with the university before founding his law firm, Carr and Wright. Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed him in 2018.

The Vice Chair is New Jersey native and former Dallas Cowboy Norman Granger. Former Gov. Terry Branstad appointed him in 2014. Granger is a longtime coach from the Cedar Valley of Iowa, near Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

Board members include Sheila Wilson, who spent 21 years working for United States Probation. She retired as a supervisor with the department in 2013, the same year she was appointed by Branstad.

Sue Lerdal was appointed in 2014 by Branstad. Her background includes 30 years with the Legislative Services Agency, from which she retired in 2011.

Kathleen Kooiker is the third board member, a New York native who earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Simpson College. She spent over 30 years on the bench as a magistrate.

Alternate board members include Jackie Romp, Gregory Coker and Susie Weinacht.

In December 2012, the Board adopted a new risk assessment tool created by the Iowa Department of Corrections. The Board had requested the tool to “replace long-standing and aging risk assessments.” This tool is known as the Iowa Violence and Victimization Instrument, or IVVI.

This tool took a sample number of offenders and focused on predicting future crimes of violence and victimization. Gang membership, current offense, criminal history and age were factors in the measurement tool. Organizers believe criminal history for 10 years prior to the offender’s current sentence is a better prediction for future criminal activity, than lifetime criminal history. There are a few exceptions.

The recidivism rate has steadily increased from 29.8 percent in FY11. FY18’s 37.8 percent represents a 10-year high.

In Bull’s experience as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, he has found that judges are apprehensive about sending people to prison. If a convict does receive a prison sentence, he or she has “earned it” in Bull’s eyes.

Solving the issue of offenders serving a small percentage of their sentences can be solved in two ways, according to Bull. The first is to be honest in sentencing and report that someone is going away for a few months or build more prisons. As of Aug. 10, Iowa had 8,477 people in prison while prisons had a capacity of 6,933. That represents an over-capacity rate of 22.27 percent.

The numbers of offenders being overseen in community-based corrections programs such as parole, probation and work release number 40,503. The DOC operates with 3,542 employees (including 1,078 in field-based corrections and 2,428 working inside prisons) and around $407 million in its budget (approximately $382 million from the general fund and $25 million from other revenues). The average daily cost per offender in prison is $90.03.

Bull believes the number of offenders is high because Iowa does not have sufficient drug treatment or mental health resources available for them. Beyond that, he believes Iowa’s Legislature and Supreme Court do not think people should be in jail prior to conviction’ and the Board of Parole treats Iowa’s prisons with a “revolving door”.

The Legislature is also looking to allow offenders, who have not committed a crime for 10 years, to have their records expunged. The intent is to help felons get back on their feet, but Bull is concerned that if records do not reflect one’s full history potential employers do not know whom they are hiring. The same thing is being considered for the sex offender registry. If a sex offender has completed treatment, he or she can be removed from it.

Every sentenced handed down by a judge is intended to punish the offender, offer him/her the best opportunity for rehabilitation and to deter others from committing similar acts.