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The Des Moines Register, Saturday, January 24, 1998, Page 1A
Paroles lag behind rise in inmates
By WILLIAM PETROSKI
The panel also sent home nearly 400 burglars. In addition, about 670 people serving time for repeat offense drunken driving were granted paroles, along with about 90 sex criminals, 21 prostitutes, five people convicted of second-degree murder, and hundreds of others who committed various crimes, state records show.
Overall, the five-member board granted 2,449 paroles during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to a state report. But that represents only an 11 percent increase in paroles since 1992, while the state's prison population grew by 48 percent over the same period.
Among all inmates, the average amount of time spent in an Iowa prison before a parole is granted is two years and three months.
Parole Board Chairman Walter Saur of Oelwein and Gov. Terry Branstad both said this week they think Iowa is following a prudent course in selecting inmates for parole.
Saur said the parole panel is a "citizens' board" that reflects Iowa community values. "We're trying to hold down the prison population, yet release the nonviolent offenders."
Branstad said the parole board has a tough and thankless job. The public usually hears about parole issues only when parolees commit serious crimes, he noted.
"The good news is that we have had a lot less of those kinds of experiences in Iowa than most other states," Branstad said. He credited that situation to policies aimed at improving information used to evaluate inmates before release and to other efforts, including a program that allows crime victims to testify before the parole board.
Saur emphasized that making decisions on whom to parole can be a complicated matter that is sometimes difficult for the public to comprehend.
For example, an inmate can be a sexual predator, but may have entered prison on a theft charge. And sometimes judges or lawyers make questionable decisions or buckle to political pressure in handling a criminal case, which places the parole board in a delicate position in considering whether to release a convict, Saur said.
The Rev. Carlos Jayne of Des Moines, a United Methodist minister who is trying to organize a coalition of groups to oppose an expansion of Iowa's prisons, contends many criminals shouldn't be sent to prison in the first place. Iowa has nearly 71,000 men and women behind bars, while about 20,000 are in community corrections programs.
"Our record in Iowa is so good in community-based corrections that it doesn't make any sense to keep them in prison," Jayne said. Too many inmates are serving extremely long sentences because of subjective decisions by prosecutors, he said. For example, people may be charged with having drugs with intent to sell when the drugs were simply purchased for their own use, he said.
"It is their word against the county attorney, and nine times out of 10 the court takes the word of the county attorney," Jayne said. "Those people need treatment. They don't need to be locked up. It is not going to do them any good because we don't have enough treatment inside."
Branstad said he thinks the public would probably prefer to have inmates serve even longer sentences than they are now.
The 2,400 inmates being freed annually "is a lot of people to parole," and there isn't a need to greatly increase that figure, Branstad said. "The concern that I have is that if you parole the wrong people and they go out and commit rape, murder and mayhem, you are going to have big, big problems."
Saur said federal government surveys show that Iowa inmates are already serving much longer sentences before parole for certain crimes than prisoners in many other states.
Iowa had a prison population cap in the early 1980s which resulted in the early release of hundreds of inmates on parole. The cap was abolished amid complaints that it threatened public safety.
William Petroski can be reached
Parole rates vs. prison population growth*
The Iowa Board of parole has increased the number of paroles granted annually by only 11 percent since 1992. Meantime, the prison population has soared by 48 percent.
* As of June 30 each year.
SOURCE: Iowa Board of Parole
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