Probation – another chance to get it right?

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There are currently 25,910 people on probation in Iowa. That's almost one of every hundred Iowans. When those on parole, special sentence, pretrial release with supervision and other criminal situations that are not jail or prison are added, nearly 40,000 Iowans are in community based corrections.

The Iowa Department of Corrections says community-based corrections provides correctional supervision and services in a community setting as an alternative to jail or prison. It's a chance not only for the person convicted of a crime to stay in their home area instead of going hundreds of miles to prison, but for the community to have the person here – to be a parent to their children, to go to work, to be a customer in local stores and businesses, to pay bills and taxes. It's also a way to improve the conditions of Iowa's prisons, which are overcrowded by 8.71% even with the releases during the pandemic.

I want to be clear from the outset: everyone in criminal justice in Iowa, from judges to county attorneys to defense attorneys to victim advocates to CASA volunteers to jailers and prison personnel to probation officers give me the sense they all want the same thing – to have fewer (or ultimately no) crime victims in Iowa. They're all working their part of the cycle to make that happen.

On the subject of how a defense attorney can defend a guilty client, that's a discussion for another day but I'm happy to talk to a defense attorney and get that information out there, too.

Back to probation – according to the Third Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, nearly 90 percent of all probationers successfully completed their supervision, that is, they didn't get their probation revoked to prison during the usually one to three years they were supervised. That would seem to indicate that for most people, probation is a workable solution – they work their program and the program works for them.

There's a bill in the Iowa legislature now that would limit how those on probation would get violations from their probation officer and face prison time.

It builds on efforts state legislators laid a foundation for 25 years ago. In 1996, an intermediate sanctions continuum was passed into law. This is basically a list of middle-ground sanctions the state can use to further supervise or restrict a person who's made a technical violation of their probation that doesn't send them to prison.

If their issue is a controlled substance violation, they might go to a more stringent treatment program. If their offense is related to mental health issues, they may be ordered to cognitive behavior class, or if they reoffend in domestic abuse, there are violence prevention classes. They could be required to report to their probation officer more often or have a higher level of supervision, or, they could be placed in a residential treatment facility. Intermediate sanctions are determined based on probation officers and corrections staff doing a risk assessment of the individual probationer and developing a plan based on facts, evidence and the record of behavior from that individual.

According to the Department of Corrections, “These commonly-used practices balance the needs of rehabilitation and community safety.”

The current bill, HF 678, reflects a movement across the U.S to abolish having one's probation taken away for a technical violation like missing an appointment due to illness or car trouble, or unknowingly walking past a house where drug trafficking is taking place (it's not like they put signs in their windows).

According to officials at the Iowa Department of Corrections, that does not happen in Iowa. If someone's sent back to prison, it's not because car trouble or illness kept them from an appointment. To be sure, if they miss an appointment, the probation officer will be seeking a conversation with them, but any sanctions are already evidence-based.

HF678 has some inducements to offenders to “be good.” HF678 defines a technical violation as anything other than a conviction for a new crime.

A defendant can only be sent or returned to prison if: convicted of a new felony or misdemeanor, has conduct that presents an identifiable, significant and imminent danger to the community and no intermediate condition would work to protect the community.

A discharge credit would apply a 14-day reduction from a defendant's term of probation for each full calendar month the defendant is in compliance with the term of probation. If you get a year of probation and follow the rules month after month, you could halve your time. An education credit means a 90-day reduction from the term of probation when a defendant earns a high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate, or completes a certified vocational, technical, or career education program. Someone who liked partying more than school might see a reason to turn things around with the invitation and opportunity to become more knowledgeable and employable.

Someone on probation who impresses their probation officer with fulfilling the requirements of probation and paying their fees could be released by the officer after approval from the district director and notification to the court and county attorney.

Halfway through probation, the probation officer provides a report and recommendation to either terminate probation early, continue with reduced terms and conditions, or continue exactly as ordered. If the probation officer declines to release the probationer early, they may request a hearing within 30 days for the court to review the report and the factors involved in the person being on probation, resulting a judge determining if the person should remain on probation, be released, or remain for a shorter period.

Probationers are able to set up a payment plan based on their ability to pay and to be released from probation if all requirements are met aside from completing payments.

The Department of Corrections said its vision is an Iowa with no new victims. Probation officers use evidence-based practices to intervene with destructive actions and behavior and intervene, but revocation to prison is only one of the responses available to them. Officials with the state DOC said Iowa has one of the best community-based correctional systems in the country.

For those who are not violent offenders or who have corrected their behavior through interventions in less restrictive environments than prison, it seems to fiscally and practically not make sense for them to be in prison. Imprisonment can create or exacerbate mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association. With 90% of all inmates returning to the community at some point, most people say they'd rather have a mentally okay, rehabilitated person moving in next door than an anxious, depressed, put-upon, traumatized, still-angry one.

It seems to not make sense to send someone to prison who has not committed a new offense that has any effect on the safety of their community. However, Iowa's criminal justice and corrections leaders seem to have a balanced approach already working.

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