After considerable scrutiny, a legislative panel Tuesday declined to halt rules, set to take place next month, that will allow the Iowa Board of Parole to make release decisions based on the unanimous vote of three members using a more-sophisticated system of assessing the risk that a prison inmate could re-offend if placed in the community under state supervision.
Members of the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee let stand proposed rule amendments by the parole board that will modify current procedures that require super majorities of four or five affirmative votes to release offenders with higher-risk assessment scores. The new rules, slated to take effect Dec. 5, will allow a three-member parole panel to free eligible inmates from prison upon a unanimous vote.
“Public safety is No. 1,” said Jason Carlstrom, who was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad in September to chair the state Board of Parole that reviews up to 16,000 cases a year and releases about 2,000 prison inmates annually. Carlstrom, an ex-county attorney, said the new system will allow the board to employ new scientific risk assessment tools and operate more effectively and efficiently, given that the parole board has three full-time and two part-time members that generally meet as three-member panels to interview prisoners who become eligible for release.
However, Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, co-chairwoman of the rules committee, said she lacked the votes needed to block or delay the rules from taking effect, and will instead draft legislation hoping the Legislature will agree to expand the parole board to five, full-time members and require a unanimous vote before any inmate release is approved.
“I’m thinking it’s a big mistake, and I wish that we could have stopped it,” she said. “I’m formulating some bill requests to try to fix it.”
Pettengill conceded that making the board a full-time operation for its five members would require lawmakers to commit more state money to the parole process, but she added “it shouldn’t be about money.”
“It should be about not letting people out who shouldn’t be out just because of space in the prison or the convenience of the parole board or that you don’t want to pay five people. I don’t get that,” Pettengill said. “We’ll need to do some legislative changes.”
Branstad, in an interview, said he supported the board’s proposed changes, noting that the current process can cause costly delays of up to 60 days before the full board makes a decision. He favors modernizing the board to a paperless system and utilizing the new evaluation system in assessing parole candidates’ risk to re-offend if released.
“I think they’re doing the right thing and I’m supportive of what they’re doing,” the governor said.
“You don’t want to parole someone who’s a bad risk,” he added. “But, if you have someone who’s a good risk, waiting a couple extra months to parole them just costs the taxpayers more money and, to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Karl Schilling, president of the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance, said he preferred the legislative panel stick with the status-quo operation of the Iowa Board of Parole rather than make changes based more on convenience, money and efficiency than protecting the public.
“To me, public safety definitely trumps convenience,” Schilling testified. “It’s better to err on the side of public safety.”
Retiring Iowa Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, who did not seek re-election this month, said the Legislature has gone “way over the edge” in establishing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and taking get-tough measures that has led to prison overcrowding. He said he supported the rule change as a way to properly assess low-risk offenders who could be housed and rehabilitated in community corrections programs more effectively.
Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, who lost a re-election bid earlier this month, said Tuesday’s discussion helped reassure him “that this is the right decision.”
However, he told Carlstrom that his parole panel needed to do a better job of informing Iowans about the new rules and risk assessment tools because “they will come under intense scrutiny” if an offender is released and “God forbid some heinous crime takes place.”
John Baldwin, director of the state Department of Corrections, said his agency “without reservation” supports the parole board’s proposed three-vote system. He said the board uses a balanced approach and does not support corrections’ officials recommendations for inmates requesting parole 20 percent to 25 percent of the time. Inmates serving life prison terms are not eligible for parole and offenders sentenced to mandatory minimum terms must serve that minimum number of years before they become eligible for release.