Feb 27, 2023 - News

Critics warn against Iowa's plan to dismantle corrections program

Illustration of a hand resting on a jail fence.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Iowa lawmakers are considering dismantling a system that has for decades given local officials oversight of thousands of criminal offenders released from incarceration.

Why it matters: Gov. Kim Reynolds and her administration contend the reorganization would streamline services and save millions of dollars each year.

  • But dozens of local advocates — including county supervisors from across the state and a former Iowa Department of Corrections district director — predict disastrous outcomes, including more Iowans in prison.

Catch up fast: Iowa's Community Based Corrections (CBC) has supervised convicted offenders on parole or probation, or others on pretrial release, for more than 40 years.

  • It often serves as an alternative to incarceration for those generally considered to be less serious offenders and currently oversees around 41,200 people — more than five times the 7,900 who are in Iowa prisons.

How it works: A local board for each of the state's eight judicial districts oversees their CBC programs, which are considered independent agencies. Each agency has a director and hundreds of staff members.

  • Each of their boards is made up of about 20 volunteers, mostly supervisors but also judges and a few citizens.
  • Each board sets policy, provides budget input and oversees operations.

What's happening: Reynolds is asking lawmakers to consolidate Iowa's 37 cabinet agencies into 16, including the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC).

  • CBC boards would become advisory councils only. CBC directors would report to the DOC instead of the local boards.

What they're saying: About 100 people — mostly CBC board members — participated in an online meeting earlier this month with DOC director Beth Skinner that Axios attended.

  • None spoke in favor of the merger and dozens left the meeting early after Skinner declined to answer questions.
  • "If you thought something was broken, why haven't you come to us as the boards of these agencies?" Story County Supervisor Linda Murken, a former judicial district director of the DOC, asked Skinner.

Zoom in: The CBC reorganization lacks details in how programs that are customized across state districts would function, which could lead to more people in prison, multiple speakers warned Skinner.

  • Dubuque County Supervisor Ann McDonough alleged the reorganization is a step towards privatizing the corrections services to for-profit businesses.

The other side: Skinner told lawmakers earlier this month that CBC directors need to be accountable to the DOC rather than local boards since the state government provides the bulk of CBC funding, per the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

What's next: A Senate committee approved the nearly 1,600-page bill last week, making it eligible for further consideration and earning praise from Reynolds.


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