By Mike Whittlesey

It’s a simple question with an answer that is more complex than you might think:
Upon serving the sentence received for committing a crime, has an offender served his/her debt to society upon release from an Iowa prison?

In an ideal world, the answer is a no-brainer. Why, yes, of course. In a land where we esteem our criminal justice system, despite its flaws, to be the finest in the world, how could it not?

This week, The Progress Review publishes the first installment of a series entitled “Second Chances.” This series was inspired by correspondence with a subscriber who has spent time in the Iowa prison system. Over the course of several years, the letters we’ve exchanged have prompted a desire to learn more about Iowa’s response to crime and its treatment of convicted criminals.

I do believe our country’s criminal justice system is the fairest one in existence. But there are flaws. Innocent until proven guilty? The case of the Duke University men’s lacrosse team members, falsely accused of rape in 2006, is one example where the accused were convicted in the court of public opinion long before their rightful legal exoneration was acknowledged.

Recently, the topic of restoring the voting rights of convicted felons in Iowa has been in the news. If the successful completion of a prison sentence truly settles the debt an offender owes to society, restoration of voting rights should not be an issue. That it remains one is an indicator of the many challenges those exiting prison face.

Why should we care about the problems of convicted felons when they get out of jail? They created their own problems when they committed a crime, some will argue. It’s a sentiment I understand completely.

We should care because there are very real costs, emotional and financial, that crime imposes on society. First and foremost, it’s important that we get criminal justice “right” to keep our communities safe. A reduction in crime means fewer victims who suffer needlessly.

A reduction in crime also means a lower price to pay to incarcerate the convicts. Consider this: At $90 a day, the average cost to house an inmate in Iowa, multiplied by the more than 8,500 individuals currently in prison, is a price tag of over $765,000 each and every day that must be paid. You can probably guess where the bulk of that money is coming from- Iowa taxpayers. Add more than three times the number of offenders being served by community-based corrections in the state and it’s not hard to understand why the Iowa Department of Corrections needs $400 million a year to operate.

We should care about helping offenders successfully make the transition to productive members of society because, like it or not, 95% of those locked up in Iowa prisons will be getting out some day. Sadly, too many of them, nearly 40%, are returning to jail, repeating the same destructive cycle of unnecessary victims and the use of financial resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

There are no easy answers to complex issues like the ones facing the Iowa Department of Corrections and the policymakers who make the rules the system must follow. It is my hope that “Second Chances” will help stimulate public discourse on how to achieve justice for law-abiding citizens while successfully rehabilitating those who commit crimes. Only then will our communities truly be safe.