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Balance is important when creating law. Legislators should balance the law so certain communities are not affected more than others, so that the unintended consequences are small, and so the balance between the good the law can do and the restrictions it places on our freedoms is considered. The balance between safety, liberty, and justice is difficult. Bills continue to come through committees and onto the floor that increase penalties and create new reasons to put Iowans in prison weeks after the sorry state of our correctional facilities was laid bare by the preventable deaths of two correctional officers. Our prisons are overcrowded; today we are at more than 10% overcapacity.

According to the Sentencing Project, the racial disparity in Iowa’s Correctional Facilities is so severe that for every white incarcerated individual there are 11 black Iowans incarcerated. Almost all of the bills we pass, which would increase penalties, would increase this disparity.

Sometimes the stories on why we need to increase penalties are compelling. For example, if an adult child of an elderly parent purposefully starves his parent and the parent dies, that individual should be held accountable for criminal behavior (SF450).

Another story from this year:  three young Iowans were high on drugs and one of them died from an overdose. Instead of reporting the death, the surviving two hid the body. Is five years in prison adequate? Or should it be ten? (HF282) Will increasing penalties decrease the rates at which these kinds of crimes are committed? Are the penalties in place not deterrent enough? How much punishment is necessary?

We all remember Emmalee Jacob’s tragic death on her way to her first final exam at Iowa State. She was hit by a CyRide bus during a horrific rain storm. No one disputes that this was an accident. The driver’s crime was a failure to report the accident and his involvement. He spent 30 days in the county jail for his failure to report. Should he have spent more time? A bill (HF 524) passed out of Transportation Committee this year makes his crime a class D felony, which would be 5 years in prison.

While personal narratives often make for compelling rhetoric, without considering the larger picture, they can lead to bad public policy. When we reduce justice to individual incidents and do not consider the law’s impact on equity, on communities, and on society, the end result is an unjust system.

The following bills would increase penalties or create a new crime and have passed out of either Public Safety and Judiciary Committees this session.

 

Public Safety

 

Judiciary