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Could Iowa cut its incarceration rate by half? ACLU says yes.

The state of Iowa could reduce its incarcerated population by 5,427 and save $360,400,064 by doing so -- all without a major impact on public safety, according to the ACLU of Iowa. The organization, along with ACLU affiliates nationwide, recently released a blueprint to reduce mass incarceration in the state.

As in most states, the ACLU of Iowa points out, Iowa's prison population more than tripled between 1980 and 2016. By September of last year, over 8,500 people were incarcerated in Iowa, and that trend will result in over 10,000 inmates by 2027.

Yet two thirds of the new prisoners in 2017 were convicted of nonviolent offenses. Indeed, a quarter of new admissions that year involved drug offenses. Another third were readmissions from parole or work release.

Incarceration in Iowa is not race neutral. In 2014, Iowa had the fourth highest rate in the U.S. of imprisonment among African-Americans. In 2017, African-Americans were imprisoned at 11 times the rate of whites and Latinos at nearly twice the rate of whites. Yet research has long established that whites and people of color commit crimes at roughly the same rates.

Moreover, the incarceration rate among women has skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling between 1990 and 2016. It continues to grow at twice the rate of men.

Simple reforms could cut Iowa's prison population by more than half

The civil rights organization argues that implementing just a few, common-sense reforms could cut our prison population from around 8,500 to just over 3,000. Doing so would free up over $360 million that could be used for other priorities, including other crime reduction strategies.

The ACLU of Iowa has identified five reforms that would achieve the goal by 2025:

  • Decriminalizing simple drug possession statewide
  • Eliminating the sentencing disparity in which crack cocaine offenses are punished 18 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses that involve the same dosage
  • Treating drug addiction as a public health issue by expanding treatment and social services support
  • Restricting the use of cash bail to end wealth-based discrimination and enhancing other constitutional protections to reduce the number of people imprisoned merely because they can't afford bail
  • Reforming the parole system and expanding access to early release

"Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change," said a spokesperson for the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice. "But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons."

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