Iowa Prison Population Predicted to Grow by 39 Percent

DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa State Department of Corrections may have a busy decade ahead of them. A new report produced by the state Department of Human Rights’ Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning (CJJP) stated that its prison population could increase by 39 percent over the next 10 years from 8,119 inmates to an estimated 11,317 inmates. That increase would exceed the current capacities at several existing state prisons.

The 34-page report projected that the male inmate population would exceed the prison system’s capacity by 37 percent and the female inmate population would exceed it by 10 percent if the numbers grow from last June’s count of 8,119 inmates.

Currently, Iowa prisons are housing 8,175 inmates in space designed to accommodate 7,276 inmates. According to the CJJP report, increased prison admissions, probation revocations and direct court commitments are factors pushing prison growth. Also mandatory minimum stays of 70 percent for sentences of certain felonies, tougher sentencing for sex offenders, a rise in the admissions of inmates convicted of drug offenses and the housing of Class A felons are other factors that influence prison population growth, the report stated.

Lettie Prell, director of research for the Iowa Department of Corrections, told The Gazette that factors such as prison admissions and the length of mandatory minimum sentences being served are beyond the department’s ability to address because they are the purview of the legislature and governor.

Iowa Department of Corrections Spokesman Fred Scaletta also told The Gazette that the new projections follow past trends, and may not require the need for new construction plans, given the successes the agency has had in managing the prison and community-based corrections system. To accommodate past population growth predictions, the department has made an effort to enhance its re-entry programs to help prepare inmates sooner for release, he added. He also noted that the department has been able to stabilize and lower the population over the years. In fact, the number of inmates who return to the prison system is lower than the national average.

The CJJP report addressed the claims that probation revocations had increased; however, it stated that the increase is likely due to higher probation populations. “The good news is [the increase] demonstrates Iowa’s commitment to treating offenders in the community rather than committing them to prison without an opportunity to become productive citizens in the community, but the bad news is that many of these offenders are failing and are going to prison,” the report stated.

The report highlighted other ways that the state has helped reduce prison growth, including increases in paroles, decreases in the average time served prior to release and increases in new aggravated misdemeanant prison entries. The report also highlighted changes that the department could make to help decrease the inmate population. The state’s response to drug offenders is just one example. “Iowa should continue examining drug offenders and drug sentences to ensure that those committed to prison for drug offenses could not be handled more effectively elsewhere or, perhaps, handled in prison for shorter periods of time,” the report noted.

Prell told The Gazette that the prison population forecast demonstrated what the prison population would look like if policies and practices continue to stay the same in the future and that the forecast is merely a suggestion of how the department can make changes to help plan a different future. Only time will tell if those changes can be made soon enough.