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Iowa Crime Legislation

The 1995 Iowa legislature passed a new wave of bills that affect many Iowa prisoners and ex-prisoners. Among these new laws are: The refusal of the county treasurer to renew vehicle registrations if the person has unpaid delinquent restitution; the inmate hard labor law [Iowa Code § 904.701] which provides for the implementation of chain gangs and other "hard labor"; the entry of a civil judgement by the court against an offender upon the discharge of his/her sentence or probation for the balance, if any, of any restitution still owed to the victim of the crime [§ 910.5(1)(2)]; a charge of contempt of court against an offender after the discharge of his/her sentence or probation for the failure of the offender to continue to comply with the plan of restitution payments ordered by the court [§ 910.4]; limiting the opportunity for lifers to apply for sentence commutation to only one application every ten years, rather than applying at any time [§ 902.2].

One new law which may have the biggest impact on prisoners, limiting their access to the courts, is the law pertaining to litigation filed by prisoners [Sections 610A.1, 610A.3, 610A.4, 903A.3(1), and 904.702] which provides: requiring the prisoner to pay in full all costs associated with a civil action or appeal; requiring the prisoner to pay a minimum of 20% of the required fee before the court will address the action or appeal; requiring the prisoner to make monthly payments of 10% of all outstanding fees and costs associated with the action or appeal; requiring the DOC to withdraw from a prisoner's account money for the payment of fees and costs associated with the action or appeal until the fees and costs are paid in full; allowing the court to dismiss any civil action or appeal in which the prisoner has previously failed to pay fees and costs; allowing the forfeiture of some or all of a prisoner's good conduct time credits accrued if the court believes the action or appeal to be malicious or filed to harass or if he/she testifies falsely or presents false information or evidence to the court in the action -- it even allows the credits to be deducted by a prison disciplinary hearing; and, allowing the state to recover the cost of the incarceration of a prisoner from any claim made by or monetary obligation owed to the prisoner.

This law does, however, allow the court to make the authorization to proceed in forma pauperis if the court finds that the prisoner does not have the money in his/her account or enough money going into his/her account to make the required payments.

Full implementation of the "hard labor" law is to be accomplished by July 1, 1997. It is not known where or how Iowa will come up with the funds to implement the new hard labor law. The state will have to purchase the chains for chain gangs. New guards will have to be hired and trained. These obstacles, plus more, will put pressure on a prison system that is already short on staff and terribly overcrowded. Iowa's prison system is designed for 3,603 prisoners. It now holds more than 5,700.

Regarding the law providing that lifers can apply for a commutation of sentence only once every ten years - what is the reasoning in that? Under Iowa's present governor, Terry Branstad, there have been only two sentences commuted in over 12 years as governor. Why so little?

Iowa's governors in the last 40 years have commuted 153 life sentences (excluding Branstad, 1983 - present). From 1955-57, Leo Hoegh commuted 30 life sentences; 1957-61, Herschel Loveless commuted 46; 1961-63, Norm Erbe commuted 11; 1963-69, Harold Hughs commuted 39; and from 1969-83 Robert Ray commuted 27 life sentences.

Is this new law on commutations just so governor Branstad doesn't have to bother with considering commutations very often, since he is apparently opposed to them? Approximately every 13 days a new lifer enters Iowa's prison system, a system with already over 440 lifers. There are some who deserve a commutation of sentence. Will they ever see one?

[Editor's Note: Thanks to Michael Brant for submitting a clear, concise reporting on anti-prisoner/litigation laws in his state. A number of other states have passed or are contemplating similar laws (See: WA Passes Record Anti-Prisoner/Defendant Legislation, PLN, Aug. '95). We would like to report on similar legislative actions in other states. We depend on you, our readers, to keep us posted. If your state legislature has passed similar legislation, please submit a short summary article such as the one above. Try to keep it on point, focus on the facts and keep the opinion/commentary/rhetoric to a minimum.]

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