The Des Moines Register, Saturday, January 24, 1998, Page 4A

Senator wants to change rules for sentencing


    Iowa's criminal sentencing laws have become a hodgepodge and should be scrapped, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says.
    "There's a strong feeling we ought to be looking at changes," said Chairman Andy McKean, R-Anamosa.
    McKean says he wants colleagues this session to authorize a commission to recommend criminal sentencing changes for possible legislative action next year.
    In theory, Iowa has a system of indeterminate sentencing, which means that judges sentence defendants to a maximum number of years in prison.
    But because of time off for good behavior and the need to make prison space available for the state's worst offenders, convicts typically are released long before they serve their maximum sentences.
    Lawmakers rewrote the criminal laws in 1976.  Since then, new laws have distorted the indetenrninate sentencing system by prescribing mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes and by eliminating parole for others, McKean and other critics say.
    Also, they say, piecemeal changes in sentencing mean that Iowa's prisons now house too many convicts who should be serving time in community programs, instead of taking up space that would be better used for more serious offenders.
    McKean says he favors a system of determinate sentencing, by which punishment is prescribed within a narrow range of prison time.
    Such a system would restrain growth in the Iowa prison population and assure that the space behind bars is used to house the worst criminals, McKean says.
    McKean says he plans to spend time in his committee this year educating members about the sentencing system recently put into effect in North Carolina, which he says should be a model for Iowa.
    The North Carolina system was approved in 1993 and is based on four principles:

    Under the North Carolina system; a judge pronounces a sentence within a range of time.
    An offender can earn time off the sentence through good behavior, but must serve the minimum time pronounced by the judge.  The North Carolina system provides no parole.
    McKean acknowledged that the proposed change carries political risks.
    Sen. Rodney Halvorson of Fort Dodge, a Democrat on McKean's committee, said the move to study the North Carolina system is likely to get bipartisan support.
    "It could be a very good direction to go," Halvorson said.
    "The easiest thing politically would be not to look at this and continue on the route we've been going - heavier penalties."

Thomas A. Fogarty can be reached at
(515) 286-2533 or

The Des Moines Register
Saturday, January 24, 1998, Page 4A