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New laws, not new prisons, are Iowa's answer

Carlos Jayne

Des Moines Register

January 28, 2007

[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.]

We don't need more prison space in Iowa. What we need are reasonable laws and policies that are smart on crime, rather than making a big show of being tough on crime.

Your Jan. 12 article about the Department of Corrections board meeting reported that the hired consultant said to expand Iowa's prisons. Of course the consultant would have to say that, based on our current laws and policies: incarcerating too many people for too long; requiring mandatory sentencing for too many crimes; allowing sentencing in the court systems to be controlled by county attorneys rather than judges; using our prisons for places to store the mentally ill; refusing to provide substance-abuse treatment in lieu of prison; not providing adequate funding for the education, treatment and counseling required by the parole board of an inmate to be considered for parole.

The responsibility for this lies squarely with the Legislature and the governor. Up to this point, any movement toward reasonable law and policy has been met in election campaigns with charges of being "soft on crime." The Department of Corrections is doing its job adequately in most cases, admirably in others, and operating as the Legislature and the governor call for and allow it to do. However, as the prison population grows, the mishandling of prisoners and lack of properly trained personnel will result in more lawsuits.

The women's prison at Mitchellville and the Iowa State Penitentiary for men at Fort Madison need improvements, but we do not need added capacity built "while we are at it." The millions it costs to administer added capacity are better spent on education, health care, mental health and substance-abuse treatment needs.

Iowa's leaders need to bring reason to the public-safety, criminal-justice and corrections systems. Building more prison capacity is not the answer.

- Rev. Carlos Jayne,
Justice Reform Consortium,
Des Moines