The vast majority of Iowa inmates will someday be set free. Will they stay there?

Third in a Series, By Mike Whittlesey

With more than 8,500 offenders currently housed in Iowa’s prisons, the number of individuals incarcerated in the state continues to rise. In fact, current 10 year projections estimate that by the year 2028, the number of prisoners will rise to 10,144, a gain of nearly 20%. Such an estimate has serious repercussions for the Iowa Department of Corrections, as well as Iowa taxpayers. The state’s prison system, as currently configured, has a capacity to house a total of 7,305 inmates (6,531 males and 774 females). Incarcerating more than 10,000 prisoners would not only exceed the system’s male and female inmate capacities by 42% and 12%, respectively, the cost to house them would increase by more than $54 million. Using the 2018 average cost of $90.03 per inmate means the annual cost to house that many prisoners would exceed $333 million.

How does the state of Iowa go about predicting the future of Iowa prison populations? Can anything be done to alter these projections? What role does the Iowa Legislature play in the number of individuals locked up in Iowa prisons?
Each year, the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning (CJJP) prepares a special report, the Iowa Prison Population Forecast, which utilizes statistical data from the Justice Data Warehouse (JDW). According to its website (, the JDW “…is a central repository of key criminal and juvenile justice information from the Judicial Branch Case Management System and information from the Iowa Correctional Offender Network (ICON) system. The overall mission of the JDW is to provide the judicial, legislative and executive branches of State Government, and other entities, with improved statistical and decision support information pertaining to justice system activities.”

The CJJP hopes to realize two main benefits from the annual prison forecast. The first is to predict the number of individuals expected to be incarcerated if present criminal justice trends, policies and practices continue. The second is to simulate other possible outcomes based on specific changes to laws, policies and/or practices. Using existing data to predict the potential effects of legislation under consideration can be helpful to lawmakers considering changes in mandatory sentencing, for example.

There are several factors that can affect prison growth, both positively and negatively. The 2028 prison forecast identifies four factors that will help reduce the number of prisoners.

1. An increase in the percentage of new admissions where the most serious crime was an aggravated misdemeanor: Because aggravated misdemeanor sentences tend to be short-term, less than a year of time served, these inmates cycle through the system quickly, not accumulating in the prison population.

2. Decreases in the average length of stay (LOS) for certain crime categories: According to CJJP, projected prison populations are very sensitive to changes in length of stay. From 2009-2018, the total average time served for first-release inmates decreased by nearly two months. This change, in turn, contributes to fewer prisoners remaining locked up in the future.

3. Increases in parolees: Since 2010, the number of parolees has increased 61.8%. A continuance of that trend will help reduce Iowa’s prison population.

4. Prison release of Robbery-2 offenders: In 2017, a change in Iowa law reduced the mandatory sentence from 70% to a range of 50% to 70% for the crime of Robbery-2nd. It also established the crime of Robbery-3rd as an Aggravated Misdemeanor, which is not subject to a mandatory minimum sentence. Those changes will reduce the future length of stay for prisoners convicted of those crimes.

There are also a number of factors simultaneously at work that will cause prison populations to increase. The 2028 forecast identifies ten.

1. Increases in felony convictions: Felony charges have exceeded 25,000 in the last three fiscal years. Because felony convictions are more likely to result in a prison sentence, these increases will contribute to a higher number of prison inmates.

2. Drug offender admissions: One of the main reasons for the increase in Iowa’s prison population over the past ten years, new prison admissions for drug convictions totalled nearly 900 in 2018, with the number of those related to methamphetamines continuing to climb. While new admissions related to marijuana and cocaine have been on the decline in recent years, those related to opioids are expected to grow considerably to mimic the state’s growing epidemic involving Heroin, Fentanyl and other painkillers.

3. Increases in Class B felonies: The number of individuals incarcerated because of a Class B felony conviction is expected to rise by 13.5% over the next decade. Class B felonies can include the crimes of manslaughter, robbery, arson, kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon.

4. Changes in certain parole eligibility: The Violent Crime Initiative enacted in 1997 abolished parole for a number of violent offenses, requiring at least 85% of the maximum sentence to be served. The Sexual Predator law, also enacted in 1997, required that certain repeat sex offenders also serve at least 85% of the maximum sentence.

5. Increases in the number of incarcerated sex offenders: Historically, prison populations have experienced a growing number of convicted sex offenders. During FY18, 174 Iowa offenders returned to prison while supervised under a special sentence, a 68.9 increase when compared to five years prior.

6. Increases in Class A felons: 32 years ago, Iowa had 198 inmates serving a life sentence in prison. Last year, that number had grown to 689.

7. Housing federal prisoners and detainees: The number of safe keeper admissions in 2018 was 97, 60 more than eight years prior.

8. Increases in length of stay for certain crime categories: An increased average length of stay for those individuals convicted in two crime categories of sexual abuse- Class C felony and Other felony, will contribute to the rising prison population over the next ten years.

9. Paroles: In the last six years, the number of paroles granted has reduced from a high of more than 2,500 in 2013 to 2,232 last year. With a trend of fewer parolees, the corresponding number of prisoners remaining incarcerated is expected to rise.

10. Changes in community-based offender populations: CJJP notes there appears to be a connection between the number of offenders being supervised in the community and those eventually entering prison. The combination of increasing numbers of probation revocations and a rapidly growing number of sex offenders serving time in the community under a special sentence is expected to contribute to future increases in Iowa’s prison population.

Despite a grim forecast for a 20% increase in the number of offenders incarcerated in Iowa prisons, CJJP’s 2028 Prison Forecast does identify some opportunities for change. Such an increase can be mitigated by making adjustments to current policies and practices. Their report suggests four areas of opportunity.

1. Increase the number of parolees: Using a variety of “timely, reliable, and validated tools proven to be effective in identifying appropriate release candidates,” the Board of Parole and Department of Corrections can reduce projected increases in Iowa’s prison population.

2. Treatment of drug offenders: CJJP suggests, “Drug offenders and drug sentences should continue to be examined to ensure that offenders committed to prison for drug offenses could not be more effectively rehabilitated elsewhere or, perhaps, committed to prison for shorter periods of time.”

3. Sex offender legislation: While the number of new sex offender admissions has remains relatively constant over the past 20 years, changes in policy have begun to have a significant impact on Iowa’s prison population.

“Without some modifications either to the length of Special Sentence supervision or to which offenders are subject to lifetime supervision, sex offenders will constitute an ever-larger proportion of offenders under community supervision. With community-based corrections already strained due to limited resources, it will be necessary to monitor the effects of increased workloads,” the report states.

The Iowa Public Safety Advisory Board and Iowa Sex Offender Research Council has recommended that changes be made to the Special Sentence that will allow the court to remove an offender from special sentence supervision based on an evidentiary hearing. Following a review of the nature of the offense, the offender’s behavior while incarcerated and compliance with treatment, an overall risk assessment and victim impact, a judgment could be rendered as to whether special sentence supervision was still necessary.

In the past four annual reports to the General Assembly, both councils continue to recommend additional funding for early and effective treatment for sex offenders.

4. Mandatory minimum sentences: Opportunities to control future prison population also lies with inmates serving a mandatory minimum of 70% of their sentences, especially those with 25 and 50 year terms. Reducing the mandatory minimum of years served for certain crimes would allow the Board of Parole to release lower-risk inmates earlier while still maintaining longer sentences for those inmates who still pose a higher risk to public safety.

Reducing Iowa’s prison population is an ongoing challenge, a puzzle that must be solved from a variety of angles. First-time offenders are not the only reason the state’s prisons are filled beyond capacity. Sadly, a large percentage of those incarcerated find themselves back in prison within three years of their release.

Next week: What are the barriers that make resuming a life outside of prison so challenging? What can be done to help ensure successful re-entry for those leaving Iowa prisons?