Second in a Series, By Mike Whittlesey

With the Iowa Department of Corrections stated mission of “Creating Opportunities for Safer Communities,” the costs associated with incarcerating more than 8,500 individuals, while serving more than three times that many through community based corrections add up very quickly. The department is staffed by more than 3,500 employees, and in Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17), had a budget of over $400 million. With an average daily cost of $90.03 (FY18) per inmate housed in each of the nine facilities throughout the state, the amount of resources needed to operate Iowa’s prisons makes the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) one of the largest recipients of taxpayer dollars from the state’s General Fund.

What is the price tag for keeping the residents of Iowa communities safe? While the easy immediate response to offenders who break the law might be, “Lock them up,” it’s clear that response comes at a significant cost.
To address the challenge of staying safe in a cost-effective manner, IDOC has developed two separate strategic priorities. The first is clearly aimed at achieving safety: Focus the resources toward individuals most likely to offend. Goals addressing this priority include incarcerating only those individuals who need it, providing an appropriate staff ratios correlated to the risk offenders pose and expanding effective community supervision.

The second strategic priority seeks to address operational efficiency: Focus on evidence-based and data driven decisions for improved offender reentry. The department’s data shows that by 2016, nearly 38% of the individuals who exited prison in 2013 had returned. It stands to reason that one way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of repeat offenders. One strategic goal designed to do this involves investing in program models that reduce recidivism, the tendency to repeat criminal behavior.

With nine institutions located throughout the state, the Iowa Department of Corrections has operated dozens of programs designed to educate and rehabilitate offenders. The sheer number of managing these programs, though, along with ensuring consistent delivery of them at each institution, is a monumental challenge.

In an effort to begin assessing those programs, IDOC partnered with Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative in 2011 to build a state-specific cost benefit analysis model. The goal was to enable Iowa policymakers and program administrators to be able to compare programs based on their effectiveness, cost and expected benefits. With that data in hand, it was believed that more informed policy and budget decisions could be made. In other words, more efficient.

The process began by focusing on adult criminal justice, specifically assessing the costs and benefits of community-based and prison-based programs. Once key staff members were trained in cost-benefit analysis, data was collected from various components of the criminal justice system- corrections, probation, law enforcement and the courts. According to a progress report authored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and MacArthur Foundation, IDOC was able to:

  • Analyze recidivism data to establish how different Iowa offender populations cycle through the criminal justice system.
  • Identify the length of time that offenders stay in each part of the system- jail, prison, probation, and parole- based on the type of crimes they commit.
  • Calculate the costs to operate each component of the system, including services to arrest, prosecute, defend, adjudicate, incarcerate, treat and supervise offenders.

Using the data that was collected, IDOC staff were able to calculate and compare the returns the state could realize if it funded different adult-offender programs. Potential benefits included savings to state and local criminal justice systems, the value of avoided costs to victims (including medical and mental health care expenses, property damage and losses, as well as future earnings. The analysis also allowed IDOC officials to compute the projected return the state would get for each dollar invested in a program.


By May of 2012, the Department of Corrections had compiled a report of their findings, which estimated the costs and benefits of a number of criminal justice programs projected over a ten year period, expressed in 2011 dollars. What they found was a large variation in the projected returns of the different programs the department operated. For example, cognitive behavioral programs, those that teach social skills, means–end problem solving, moral reasoning, self-control, impulse management, and self-efficacy to offenders in prison, were relatively inexpensive to operate and highly effective in reducing recidivism, returning $37.70 for every one dollar spent. By comparison, correctional education, programs that range from basic skills training to college and vocational training that provide skills necessary to obtain employment upon release from prison, were also effective, though they returned an expected $2.91 in benefits for every dollar spent.

The cost-benefit analysis also evaluated programs provided to prisoners leaving prison and high-risk offenders on probation, finding a similar wide range of projected returns on investment.

With the analysis complete, IDOC leaders and staff were able to objectively evaluate programs and shift resources to those that were more effective. The cognitive behavioral program Thinking for a Change, for example, was expanded. With the assistance of the National Institute of Corrections, additional staff members were trained to deliver the program, improving its quality and effectiveness while expanding the number of people receiving it.

In the case of the community-based domestic violence treatment program, which was shown to be ineffective, losing three dollars for each one dollar invested, IDOC discontinued it in favor of an alternative program.

The cost-benefit analysis also helped IDOC determine an optimum caseload number for probation officers and predict outcomes if policymakers chose not to impose mandatory minimum sentences for low-risk offenders and invest half the savings in cognitive behavioral therapy in prisons and community supervision. The analysis concluded that by the fourth year, such a change could reduce the prison population by 64 inmates and save taxpayers $1.2 million over ten years.

By 2015, what was once over 200 programs that were part of the state’s inmate management database was reduced to just 79, as duplicate and obsolete programs were removed. Of those 79, 26 were classified at evidence-based, 15 essential, and another 38 as low-priority because they didn’t have a proven impact on recidivism and were not considered essential to re-entry or sentence completion.

The process of discontinuing some programs so that resources could be shifted to support those that were proven to reduce recidivism was a challenging one. It was necessary to focus staff on the shared goal of rehabilitating offenders for the sake of safer communities when taking a close look at programs that were not as effective, according to the data, despite having the support and investment of staff members.

In 2017, when the program inventory was complete, the Iowa Department of Corrections had reduced the total number of programs operation to 45. As part of the strategic effort to invest staff time in the programs that were proven to help reduce recidivism, lower-priority programs that remained were either offered less frequently or were staffed with volunteers. In a January 2018 issue brief, The Pew Charitable Trusts noted that since “work began in Fiscal 2011-12, the department has shifted $3.8 million to evidence-based programming within its facilities, with minimal change in overall spending.”

“The program inventory got us [wardens] talking about the needs within our institutions [for] evidence-based programs [and not just activities] to keep idle hands busy,” said Sheryl Dahm, warden at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville.

Much of this work was made possible by the Second Chance Act Grant Program, which helps fund the Statewide Recidivism Reduction (SRR) Program. There are two phases to the SRR grant program. Iowa entered the first phase in 2013, which involved bringing stakeholders together, setting recidivism reduction goals, and developing comprehensive, data-driven plans to achieve those goals. That was followed by an implementation phase where a grant of $3 million over a three year period helped fund much of the work the state did to train staff as they evaluated and consolidated programs.

One of the training programs initiated for staff, the Core Correctional Training course, challenged correctional officers to approach their interaction with inmates with new interpersonal skills and consideration for how that interaction could ultimately impact their assessed risk of recidivism. Ernie Galbreath, a Corrections Officer & Training Specialist, noted that role-playing activities have helped officers learn how to use a more standardized set of responses that encourage more positive interaction between offender and officer.

An April 2018 article entitled “Second Chance Act Spotlight: Grant Awards Help Iowa Corrections Officers Focus Efforts to Improve Reentry Outcomes,” stated “The SRR program has been instrumental in shifting agency dialogue toward reducing the likelihood of people recidivating and has organically prompted discussions between staff and residents about how to prepare their return to communities after prison.”

“These conversations are happening much earlier, long before their release date,” Galbreath said, adding that the correctional practices officers are learning are helping inmates to begin thinking early on about making a successful transition to life outside of prison walls.

Next Week: Future trends indicate an expected rise in the number of offenders incarcerated in Iowa prisons over the next ten years. How does the state forecast future prison population and what are the implications for policy makers?