The Des Moines Register, Saturday, January 24, 1998, Page 1A

Paroles lag behind rise in inmates


    The Iowa Board of Parole freed more than 300 convicts last year who had served time for drug trafficking.
    The panel also sent home nearly 400 burglars.  In addition, about 670 people serving time for repeat offense drunken driving were granted paroles, along with about 90 sex criminals, 21 prostitutes, five people convicted of second-degree murder, and hundreds of others who committed various crimes, state records show.
    Overall, the five-member board granted 2,449 paroles during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to a state report.  But that represents only an 11 percent increase in paroles since 1992, while the state's prison population grew by 48 percent over the same period.
    Among all inmates, the average amount of time spent in an Iowa prison before a parole is granted is two years and three months.
    Parole Board Chairman Walter Saur of Oelwein and Gov. Terry Branstad both said this week they think Iowa is following a prudent course in selecting inmates for parole.
    Saur said the parole panel is a "citizens' board" that reflects Iowa community values.  "We're trying to hold down the prison population, yet release the nonviolent offenders."
    Branstad said the parole board has a tough and thankless job.  The public usually hears about parole issues only when parolees commit serious crimes, he noted.
    "The good news is that we have had a lot less of those kinds of experiences in Iowa than most other states," Branstad said.  He credited that situation to policies aimed at improving information used to evaluate inmates before release and to other efforts, including a program that allows crime victims to testify before the parole board.
    Saur emphasized that making decisions on whom to parole can be a complicated matter that is sometimes difficult for the public to comprehend.
    For example, an inmate can be a sexual predator, but may have entered prison on a theft charge.  And sometimes judges or lawyers make questionable decisions or buckle to political pressure in handling a criminal case, which places the parole board in a delicate position in considering whether to release a convict, Saur said.
    The Rev. Carlos Jayne of Des Moines, a United Methodist minister who is trying to organize a coalition of groups to oppose an expansion of Iowa's prisons, contends many criminals shouldn't be sent to prison in the first place.  Iowa has nearly 71,000 men and women behind bars, while about 20,000 are in community corrections programs.
    "Our record in Iowa is so good in community-based corrections that it doesn't make any sense to keep them in prison," Jayne said.  Too many inmates are serving extremely long sentences because of subjective decisions by prosecutors, he said.  For example, people may be charged with having drugs with intent to sell when the drugs were simply purchased for their own use, he said.
    "It is their word against the county attorney, and nine times out of 10 the court takes the word of the county attorney," Jayne said.  "Those people need treatment.  They don't need to be locked up.  It is not going to do them any good because we don't have enough treatment inside."
    Branstad said he thinks the public would probably prefer to have inmates serve even longer sentences than they are now.
    The 2,400 inmates being freed annually "is a lot of people to parole," and there isn't a need to greatly increase that figure, Branstad said.   "The concern that I have is that if you parole the wrong people and they go out and commit rape, murder and mayhem, you are going to have big, big problems."
    Saur said federal government surveys show that Iowa inmates are already serving much longer sentences before parole for certain crimes than prisoners in many other states.
    Iowa had a prison population cap in the early 1980s which resulted in the early release of hundreds of inmates on parole.  The cap was abolished amid complaints that it threatened public safety.

William Petroski can be reached at
(515) 284-8547 or

500 lifers

Parole rates vs. prison population growth*

The Iowa Board of parole has increased the number of paroles granted annually by only 11 percent since 1992.  Meantime, the prison population has soared by 48 percent.

paroles.jpg (31668 bytes)

* As of June 30 each year.
SOURCES: Iowa Board of Parole, Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning

Time served prior to parole
The following shows the average time served before paroles were granted for certain crimes in Iowa during the 1997 state fiscal year.*
Distribution of a controlled substance in the vicinity of a school or a park Four years, eight months
Attempt to commit murder Eight years, six months
Second-degree murder 17 years, 10 months
First-degree robbery Nine years, nine months
Second-degree sexual abuse Seven years, four months
Habitual felony offender Eight years, 10 months
Second-degree arson Three years, five months
Second-degree burglary Four years, 11 months
Child endangerment, serious injury Two years, seven months
Homicide by vehicle, under the influence or reckless Three years, six months
Manufacture and delivery of a counterfeit drug Four years, two months
Manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance Two years, one month
Third-degree sexual abuse Three years, seven months
First-degree theft Three years, 10 months
Willful injury Three years, 10 months
Third-degree burglary Two years
Extortion Two years, four months
Failure to obtain a controlled substance tax stamp One year, eight months
Forgery Two years
Going armed with intent One year, seven months
Lascivious acts with a child Two years, five months
Manufacture and delivery of marijuana, less than 50 kilos One year, four months
Operating under the influence, third offense One year
Receiving, transporting and possessing firearms and devices by a felon One year, 11 months
Terrorism Two years, six months
Second-degree theft One year, 10 months
Driving motor vehicle while barred Nine months
Operating vehicle without consent 10 months
Operating while under the influence, second offense Six months
Prostitution 10 months
All paroles Two years, three months
* Fiscal year 1997 ended June 30, 1997.
Internet access:
Offers a monthly update on inmates who are granted paroles and work release.

SOURCE: Iowa Board of Parole

The Des Moines Register
Saturday, January 24, 1998, Page 1A