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Iowa Prisoner May Have Restitution Deductions from Prison Wages Increased

The Iowa Supreme Court held that a state district court has the discretion to amend a restitution order to increase the deductions from the pay of a prisoner employed in a private-sector prison industry program.

Before the Court was the appeal of Iowa prisoner Beau Morris, who claimed a district court had abused its discretion when it rescinded a modified restitution order that required 50% of his earnings be paid towards restitution.

As part of his sentence, Morris was ordered to pay $16,000 in restitution. The district court ordered 15% of all income into his prison account be paid towards his restitution obligation. When Morris was hired by Iowa Prison Industries, he filed a motion with the court to increase the deduction to 50%, which was granted. The Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) then moved for the order to be rescinded.

The district court granted the IDOC’s motion, finding “the Modified restitution order violated the state statutory scheme for the distribution of inmate earnings from private-sector employment.” Morris appealed.

Iowa law specifies three priorities for distribution of a prisoner’s gross payroll earnings: (1) twenty percent to be deposited in the prisoner’s general account; (2) all required tax deductions to be collected by the employer; and (3) five percent to be paid to the victim compensation fund. Once those deductions are made, the remaining balance is distributed pursuant to a separate priority list.

If a prisoner has monthly spousal or child support obligations, up to 50% of his or her net earnings can be applied to those obligations. In cases where restitution is ordered, it shall be paid according to the court’s plan. The IDOC may retain up to 50% of the balance, and the remainder is deposited in the state’s general fund.

“There is no dispute under the statute that restitution trumps funding for IDOC, just as dependent support orders trump restitution plans,” the Iowa Supreme Court held. “The modified restitution order did not alter any of the categories of distribution with a greater priority under the statute, but merely increased the amount distributed for restitution, which left a lesser amount for the DOC and the state’s general fund.”

The distribution priorities were a result of the Iowa legislature’s decision to “compensate victims of crimes and other recipients of restitution before permitting the DOC to be reimbursed for its costs of supervising the private-sector employment of prisoners and the state to be reimbursed for the costs of incarceration.”

The district court had rescinded its order increasing Morris’ restitution deductions based on the incorrect conclusion that it could not increase restitution orders to 50% of a prisoner’s pay. The state Supreme Court reversed, finding that district courts do in fact have that authority, “without prejudice to the state to seek further modifications of Morris’s restitution.”

Following the decision, attention focused on the IDOC’s practices in regard to distributions from prisoners’ pay. The IDOC and the state’s general fund received nearly $1.2 million from prisoner earnings in 2013, while only $490,000 went towards victim restitution. “You could imagine if they were following the statute correctly, those numbers would be reversed,” said criminal defense attorney Grant Gangestad.

“It’s interesting an offender is saying, ‘I want more money for restitution,’ and the state resisted that,” added attorney Gary Dickey. “If you look at it from victims’ perspective, the state has been withholding restitution that they should have been receiving.” See: Iowa v. Morris, 858 N.W.2d 11 (Iowa 2015).

Additional source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Iowa v. Morris