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Crime and Penal Reform . . .

Shooting Our Messengers

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 3, 2006

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[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

We have more problems than we deserve and more solutions than we've tried.

One reason? The way we treat those who offer solutions.

Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek is a case in point. Given the shrinking county budget, what with federal program cuts and tax waivers (TIFs), we're lucky Pulkrabek has the smarts and political courage he does. His increased use of electronic monitoring saved the county 882 jail days. Mental health and substance diversion programs also help.

But the partisan flack started to fly at his suggestion the legislature re-think penalties for alcohol and drug abuse.

It was an odd target for Republicans. Pulkrabek's were the mildest of proposals from a conservative, Republican businessman and former New Mexico governor, Gary E. Johnson. Johnson thinks that "locking up nonviolent drug offenders is simply a waste of money." This triathlete, who avoids alcohol, drugs, caffeine and sugar, believes "any investment should be evaluated based on its returns. By that standard, the nationwide drug war is a failure."

Roughly half of all violent crime involves alcohol. Montana reports "85 percent of inmates are behind bars because of behavior caused by alcohol or drug abuse." No fewer than 25 percent of prisoners suffer from mental illness.

Does imprisoning these ill persons give us sadistic satisfaction? If not, and if the goal is crime reduction, wouldn't treatment make more sense?

It's more effective -- and humane. But it's also cheaper. As Gov. Johnson notes, "every dollar spent on treatment instead of imprisonment saves $7 in state costs."

He continues, "Instead of asking how many people smoked marijuana last year, we should ask if drug-related crime went up or down. Dealing with drugs through a medical model rather than a criminal model decreases prison rates, violent crime, property crime, overdose deaths, AIDS and hepatitis C."

All Sheriff Pulkrabek was offering for discussion -- with many other ideas -- was that small amounts of marijuana be punished with citations and fines. Pretty tame stuff compared to the Republican governor's proposals.

For this our sheriff was attacked as "irresponsible" because he won't "enforce the laws on the books."

No law enforcement agency can enforce all "the laws on the books." We wouldn't have prison space if they could. Priorities must be established.

During the 1990s we built 3,500 new prisons at a cost of $30 billion. In 1980, there were 500,000 Americans in prisons. Today it's two million. The cost increased even faster, from $7 billion to $50 billion. At $20,000 to $40,000 a year, it would be cheaper to send them to the University of Iowa than to prison.

Can you say, "We're number one!"? We have more people in prison than any nation on earth. It's our country's primary public housing program. Only one country has more inmates per 100,000, and that's Rwanda.

How many elected officials do you know who are willing to identify real problems and options for solutions? Not many.

Democrats in Washington now seem to recognize they must stand for something. But they've yet to decide what that might be.

Hillary Clinton tried it with health care. President George W. Bush with "no child left behind." Neither got much thanks ---- even from their beneficiaries.

I was luckier. As Maritime Administrator I pushed reluctant ship owners to use cost-saving "containerization." Now it's used for 90 percent of cargo. At the FCC I finally convinced phone company executives that 800 and 911 numbers weren't as "impossible" as they insisted. While on the school board, some of the brainstorming from my biweekly education columns actually had modest impact.

So I understand what Sheriff Pulkrabek is trying to do and the difficulties in doing it. He's trying to prioritize tasks, increase efficiency, decrease violent crime -- and do it all for less than what we've been spending. Just like a conservative Republican governor.

If we want more public officials like Pulkrabek, we'd best cut the carping and join in the dialogue.

Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.


“Prison Population Statistics,” Wikipedia,

J.P. Morgan, “Prison Costs,”$.html; National Center for Policy Analysis, “Prison Costs (2001),

Gary E. Johnson, “Bad Investment,” Mother Jones (2001),

Eric Newhouse, "The Llifeblood of Violent Crime; A Glimpse Into the Corrections System Reveals Hidden, Yet Staggering, Price Society Pays for Addiction,"  Great Falls Tribune, October 21, 1999,

Related Stories

Christoph Trappe, "Sex Offenders Tax Prison Capacity" (May 6, 2006)
Associated Press, "Mexico to Legalize Possession of Small Amounts of Drugs" (April 29, 2006)
Los Angeles Times, "Drug Treatment Saves California Millions; Program Also Eases Jail Overcrowding" (April 14, 2006)
Gary Smith, "Sheriff is Getting 'Smart on Crime'" (March 2)
Dave Zimmer, "Don't Weaken Marijuana Laws" (March 2)
Gazette Editorial, "Jury Still Out on New Prison" (March 1)
Los Angeles Times Editorial, "Prisons and the Brick Wall" (February 28)
Dan Goodin, "California Prison Chief Plans to Resign" (February 26)
Jason Pulliam, "Puldrabek Draws Fire From GOP" (February 22)
Des Moines Register Editorial, "Rethink Jail Terms for Small Amounts of Pot" (February 18)

Mexico to Legalize Possession of Small Amounts of Drugs

Associated Press

The Gazette

April 29, 2006

    MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s Congress approved a bill Friday decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin for personal use — a measure sure to raise questions in Washington about Mexico’s commitment to the war on drugs.

    The only step remaining was the signature of the president, whose office indicated he would sign it.

    Mexican officials hope the law will help police focus on large-scale trafficking operations, rather than minor drug busts. The bill also stiffens penalties for trafficking and possession of drugs — even small quantities — by government employees or near schools, and maintains criminal penalties for drug sales.

    The Bush administration had no immediate reaction.

    The bill, passed by Mexico’s Senate on a 53-26 vote with one abstention, had already been approved in the lower house of Congress and was sent to the desk of President Vicente Fox for his signature.

    ‘‘This law gives police and prosecutors better legal tools to combat drug crimes that do so much damage to our youth and children, ’’ presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said.

    The bill says criminal charges will no longer be brought for possession of up to 25 milligrams of heroin, five grams of marijuana (about one-fifth of an ounce, or about four joints), and half a gram of cocaine — about half the standard street-size quantity, which is enough for several lines of the drug.

    ‘‘No charges will be brought against . . . addicts or consumers who are found in possession of any narcotic for personal use,’’ according to the Senate bill, which also lays out allowable quantities for a large array of other drugs, including LSD, MDA, ecstasy — about two pills’ worth — and amphetamines.

    Some of the amounts are eye-popping: Mexicans would be allowed to possess 2.2 pounds of peyote, the buttonsized hallucinogenic cactus used in some native Indian religious ceremonies.

    Mexican law now leaves open the possibility of dropping charges against people caught with drugs if they are considered addicts and if ‘‘the amount is the quantity necessary for personal use.’’

Sheriff is Getting "Smart on Crime"

Gary Smith

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 2, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Republican reactionaries are a peculiar lot. They decry drug abuse but oppose a tobacco tax. They want harsh penalties, like Rush Limbaugh, except for themselves.

They will fund incarceration rates that civilized nations find barbaric with our great-great-great-grandchildren's money, while at the same time cutting spending for beat cops and programs that actually tackle crime's causes and provide alternatives. Dogma masquerades as purpose in public policy; if it doesn't work, just do much more of the same.

Now they are singing full-throated and with their usual unison against common sense proposals made to the Legislature by Lonny Pulkrabek.

Personally, I would rather see my law enforcement tax dollars used to track and incarcerate the sociopaths preying on our communities than stigmatizing those whose only infractions in a lifetime might be simple possession.

To those who say that would be sending the wrong message, I would say, what message do we send by criminalizing the behavior of large swaths of otherwise law abiding, productive citizens? Whatever might be the message we are sending now, there are an awful lot of people it hasn't reached.

We've had plenty of "tough on crime" approaches with an attendant explosion of fiscal and human costs as the war on drugs has filled our jails with non-violent offenders. We are way past due for some "smart on crime" solutions.

Thank you, Sheriff Pulkrabek, for bravely articulating an intelligent alternative.

Gary Smith
Iowa City

Don't Weaken Marijuana Laws

Dave Zimmer

Des Moines Register

March 2, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

I applaud the Iowa senators who support increased penalties for marijuana possession.

The Register criticized increased penalties and supported weaker penalties (“Rethink Jail Terms for Small Amounts of Pot,” Feb. 18 editorial). The editorial supported Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek’s proposal that would weaken Iowa’s drug laws pertaining to marijuana possession.

The Register fails to understand that an overwhelming number of law-enforcement officers in this state do not agree with Pulkrabek’s stance. The sheriff is only one man with one opinion.

How the Register can take the view of one man and portray it in an editorial as being the collective view of “those charged with enforcing the laws” is beyond comprehension.

I sincerely hope lawmakers resist the temptation to weaken Iowa’s drug laws. Instead, citizens, law-enforcement officers and lawmakers must maintain a strong stance on illegal drug use. Doing otherwise sends the wrong moral message and jeopardizes public health and safety.

Dave Zimmer

Jury Still Out on New Prison


The Gazette

March 1, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    The Iowa Legislature was right to delay a decision on whether to build a new maximum security prison.

    After the escape and recapture of two prisoners in November from the 167-year-old Fort Madison prison, there was a push for lawmakers to approve construction of an $80 million new prison. Gov. Tom Vilsack and the state’s top prison official recommended the new prison, and public concern over the escape of two felons sentenced to life without parole was high enough that it seemed likely that a Legislature notorious for knee-jerk reactions would pony up for a new facility.

    Yet the political debate about a new prison was quite restrained and insightful. Lawmakers asked good questions during committee hearings, then wisely elected to craft next year’s budget without prison construction plans included.

    That’s not to say a new prison isn’t needed. It may well be. But what a great opportunity this provides for Iowa to have a more comprehensive discussion about crime, punishment, justice and rehabilitation. Freed from the deadline pressures of a state legislative session, lawmakers can embark on the kind of research and public input that could result in policy improvements that go far beyond whether to build a new prison.

    Some questions to ponder before next session:

    Are there prisoners in Iowa’s system who would be better served in community-based corrections programs? The ‘‘Big House’’ should hold killers, rapists, kidnappers, drug kingpins and others considered the worst of the worst. But other criminals may have a better chance at rehabilitation — and be secured at less cost to taxpayers — somewhere other than prison.

    Is Iowa reforming and treating inmates or merely punishing them? High percentages of prisoners suffer from mental illness, addictions and histories of abuse. Many lack education or vocational skills. Progressive prison systems can address some of these problems and help cut into dismal fact that two-thirds of the people who leave U.S. prisons each year are rearrested within three years. Iowa has several successful programs, but can more be done?

    Are Iowa’s sentencing laws in sync with Iowa values? Mandatory minimum penalties that handcuff judges’ discretion come with a price. The state budget simply hasn’t been able to keep pace with the demands Iowans have for state funding of education, economic development and other priorities. Is the public happy with trade-offs made for tougher sentences on drug crimes, for example?

    Does Iowa have the progressive security practices and processes in place to guard Iowa’s inmates? While the aging Fort Madison facility got part of the blame for the escape, other factors played a role, too. All of Iowa’s prisons should be using the most modern, costeffective security systems.

    A debate that answers all of these questions should yield the best answer about a new prison, and about improvements throughout Iowa’s correctional system.

Prisons and the Brick Wall


Los Angeles Times

February 28, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Los Angeles Times, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Los Angeles Times.]

IF ANYBODY COULD FIX THE MESS that California has made of its prison system, Roderick Q. Hickman seemed like the person. A former prison guard, he came to his job as state corrections secretary with management experience, insight into the workings of the reactionary guards union and the strong backing of a governor who vowed to fight the interests that have turned the state's corrections system into a national disgrace.

But over the weekend, Hickman gave up.

Running this state's prisons is a thankless job. On one side are legislators demanding quick fixes to intractable problems and federal courts that are dividing up responsibility over the prisons piecemeal; on the other is a guards union wielding its enormous political clout to squelch most changes. Hickman, standing in the middle, had only one ally he could count on: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who now seems to have moved on to other things.

A bruising fight with the guards union has taken its toll. Schwarzenegger's Proposition 75, which would have reined in the political power of public employee unions, was soundly (and sadly) defeated at the polls, and other measures aimed specifically at the prisons have been rescinded under heavy union pressure. After resigning Saturday, Hickman said he didn't think that the governor had the will any longer to fix the system's problems.

It's distressing to see Hickman go, but at the same time, it's hard to think of a single important thing he accomplished in his two-year tenure. He may be remembered as a man who said all the right things but did few of them, buffeted as he was by competing interests and problems beyond his control.

One example is illustrative. In 2004, the state expanded a program begun under Gov. Gray Davis to send nonviolent parole violators to halfway houses, home detention or jail-based drug treatment programs. It was a badly needed effort to reduce the prison population and cut recidivism by helping addicts get the kind of treatment they weren't getting in prison. A year later, as a victims' rights group, heavily supported by the guards union, was running misleading commercials claiming that the program was endangering the public, Hickman abruptly dropped it. Then he had to revive it two months later under orders from a federal judge.

One piece of good news is that Hickman will be replaced, at least temporarily, by his second-in-command, Undersecretary Jeanne S. Woodford. She, like Hickman, has a reputation as a reformer committed to rehabilitating inmates rather than sending them through a revolving door from prison to the community and back to prison. But unless Schwarzenegger returns his full backing and strong attention to repairing the broken prison system, she doesn't stand a chance.

California Prison Chief Plans to Resign

Dan Goodin

Associated Press
Washington Post

February 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Associated Press and Washington Post and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Washington Post and Associated Press.]

SAN FRANCISCO -- The head of California's prison system, a reform-minded appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he's resigning after more than two years on the job because his efforts lacked political support.

Corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman, 49, said the governor would receive an official letter of resignation Monday.

"I think we've built an excellent foundation, but I just don't see the courage and will we need to get it done across the board in the government of California," Hickman told the Los Angeles Times in Sunday's edition.

The governor's office said Sunday the department's undersecretary, Jeanne Woodford, would temporarily fill the top post.

Phone messages left at Hickman's home by The Associated Press weren't immediately returned.

Hickman frequently came under fire from legislators, union officials and prison watchdog groups, which criticized his lack of progress cleaning up California's $8 billion prison system.

The department under Hickman started a new parole program designed to keep more inmates from returning to prison by easing their transition back to a normal life.

And while he believes the governor remains interested in prison reform, Hickman told the newspaper "the special interests we're up against are just too powerful to get much done in the current environment."

Schwarzenegger, speaking Sunday at the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., said Hickman faced obstacles in trying to clean up California's prisons.

"He had a lot of chances, but as you know it's a system that has been dysfunctional for so long," the governor said. "To turn it around that quick when you have another 120 people breathing down your neck, and all having their own suggestions of how to do it, it's more difficult to do."

The influence wielded by the powerful prison guards' union also nudged him toward leaving his post, Hickman said.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has fought with Hickman since he took the job, even though he began his career as a prison guard and was a union member for 20 years.

Union leaders initially were upset with Hickman for his campaign to purge the prisons of the "code of silence" that Hickman and others said deterred guards from reporting misconduct by colleagues.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a public interest group that represents inmates challenging prison conditions, said Hickman sincerely wanted to root out corruption and other problems, but was unable to do so.

"He brought a refreshing willingness to acknowledge the existence of serious problems instead of to minimize them," Specter said. "He just wasn't able to fix any of the problems that he so honestly identified."

Pulkrabek Draws Fire From GOP

Jason Pulliam

The Daily Iowan

February 22, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Daily Iowan.]

Two weeks after proposing a series of reforms to state lawmakers aimed at reining in jail overcrowding and budget problems, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek continues to draw fire from critics who argue his approaches are soft on crime.

Johnson County Republicans have lashed out at Pulkrabek, arguing that his advocacy of changing the penalty for having small amounts of marijuana from a serious to simple misdemeanor is reckless.

"It's a very irresponsible position to take," said Johnson County Republicans head Todd Versteegh of Oxford. "If he wants to be sheriff, he needs to enforce the laws on the books."

Pulkrabek made six recommendations in testimony before legislators, but two in particular generated the most interest and, in some cases, outrage.

Some people also took exception with Pulkrabek's suggestion to consider diverting select public-intoxication offenders to a detox facility, asserting that a comparable center located in the county in the 1980s was ineffective.

"We tried that before, and it seemed to create more problems than it solved," Versteegh said.

While the detox approach is worth considering, the books would have to be changed in order to seriously entertain the notion, Pulkrabek said. Under current law, such facilities cannot be locked, enabling those admitted to leave at their own choosing.

"Until the law is changed, it's a moot point," he said.

The controversy has the Democratic lawman working to dispel what he calls "absolute fallacies" about his approach to law enforcement.

Because many people charged with first-offense marijuana possession are not sentenced to jail time, Pulkrabek argues it makes sense to issue a citation initially, still forcing offenders to go through the court system.

"Why not hit them in the pocketbook?" he said.

Aspects of the proposal have gained the support of Democratic Johnson County attorney candidate Nick Maybanks.

"I agree with the sheriff; there are times we can use a citation in lieu of jail time for small amounts of marijuana," he said. "We're dealing with critical jail overcrowding. We're getting to a point where we have to make tough choices."

Maybanks' opponent, Assistant Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, did not immediately return phone calls for comment Tuesday.

Pulkrabek also points out that while current law requires officers to notify schools if juveniles are found in possession of alcohol, even if they are not charged, the same is not true in cases of minors caught possessing marijuana.

"If we want to treat marijuana more harshly, why is there a difference in the law?" he said.

To help address jail overcrowding, Johnson County has been shipping inmates out of its 92-bed lock-up to neighboring counties since 2001, resulting in almost $2 million in housing expenses. The figure does not include transportation costs.

The county has also implemented three jail-alternative programs; including mental-health and substance-diversion programs and an electronic monitoring system.

Pulkrabek said 71 people served sentences under the electronic monitoring program in 2005, resulting in a total of 882 days that would have otherwise been spent behind bars. That's up from 2004, when 60 inmates participated in the program for a combined 650 days.

A $20 million bond issue to construct a new jail failed overwhelmingly in 2000. Pulkrabek said the county needs to compile more data before recommending a new facility.

For Versteegh, constructing a new jail is long overdue.

"The current facility is grossly inadequate," he said.

Rethink Jail Terms for Small Amounts of Pot


Des Moines Register

February 18, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

University of Iowa students can “leave with their degree in one hand and their criminal record in the other hand,” according to Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek.

Overzealous sentencing mandates victimize students who possess small amounts of marijuana.

That’s one of the points Pulkrabek made to a group of lawmakers last week. He was invited to speak to them about sentencing reform and offered some common-sense suggestions.

He recommended setting up locked detoxification centers so drunks picked up by police are secured and monitored by medical personnel. He also told lawmakers the sex-offender law is an “enormous” burden on police because day-care centers and others are required to make written requests to law-enforcement agencies to check the state sex-offender registry.

“The state requires them to do this even though they could look up the very same information online,” he said.

Other suggestions: harsher sentences for people who get a fourth, fifth or sixth charge of OWI. Also: Spend more to treat the mentally ill.

“Our society has criminalized mental illness,” he said. Police have to deal with these people.

Then there was perhaps his most controversial suggestion: Make possession of a very small amount of marijuana a simple misdemeanor, which would reduce the penalty.

Currently, the penalty is up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. And since many of those caught are students, they may also lose financial aid and leave college with a criminal record. Sentencing mandates jeopardize students’ futures, contribute to jail crowding and waste officers’ time.

But will lawmakers listen to this no-nonsense advice from a law-enforcement officer who deals with criminals every day out here in the real world?

Probably not. In fact, Senate File 2014 would increase penalties for possessing marijuana. Sen. Mark Zieman, who introduced the legislation, said he was motivated after hearing from an Iowan who received a harsher penalty for drunken driving than his friend received for driving under the influence of marijuana.

But the legislation would mean harsher penalties not just for impaired drivers but also for walkers with half a joint in their pockets.

That’s moving drug sentencing in the wrong direction. That’s lawmakers failing to listen to those charged with enforcing the laws they enact.