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Reynolds Announces Criminal Justice Work Group

reynolds with NAACP leaders
Katarina Sostaric
Gov. Kim Reynolds announces a criminal justice work group with Iowa NAACP leaders in Ankeny.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday she is forming a committee tasked with recommending policies aimed at reducing the rate of ex-offenders returning to prison and removing bias from Iowa’s criminal justice system.

“That will be part of my program moving forward, is to build on the second chance initiatives that I started last year,” Reynolds said. “We’ve got some great updates for some of the things we’ve done, and we’ll be looking at what else we need to do.”

She also said she will continue to push for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentence, a proposal shot down by Iowa Senate Republicans earlier this year.

Reynolds, a Republican, announced these efforts at the 7th annual Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities in Ankeny. NAACP leaders joined her on stage and said the governor has included them in discussions about who should be in the criminal justice work group.

Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews said she is very excited about this new committee.

“There was just a study in the Midwest, done by an Iowa professor, about how Iowa is one of the worst places to live for an African-American…So what we’re trying to do is change that, and one of the biggest factors is that criminal justice piece,” Andrews said.

Iowa’s prison system also has one of the worst racial disparities in the country, with black Iowans making up less than 4 percent of the state’s population and 25 percent of the prison population.

Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg will chair the work group.  A list of members has yet to be released.

Reynolds said the group’s first task is to come up with policies to help people leaving prison to get a job. She said the group will also consider issues like housing and transportation, and look for ways to support ex-offenders so they are less likely to end up in prison again.

Reynolds said these recommendations will create the foundation for legislation she will propose when lawmakers return to the Iowa Capitol in January.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said it is encouraging to hear words of support from the governor.

“But I also think it takes a little more nudging to make sure that some of my peers across the aisle get the same message [and] understand the support,” Smith said. “Because right now, I’m hearing it, and it sounds good. I’m just not seeing it in the way that the votes turn out on the voting board in the House.”

Smith said he would like to see sentencing reform and incentives for employers to hire ex-offenders.

And Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said it’s a positive announcement, but even people who receive job training in prison have trouble getting a job interview when they get out because of their criminal record.

“I’m looking forward to hearing a holistic approach to help putting some of our ex-offenders back to work, and giving them an opportunity to be fruitful citizens, as well,” Hart said.

Waterloo recently became the first city in Iowa to prohibit almost all employers from asking an applicant about their criminal record until after they make a conditional job offer.

Felon voting debate to continue in 2020

Reynolds said she is working with Republican senators to gain their support for a constitutional amendment that would restore felon voting rights.

Some are opposed to the measure because they think people with felony convictions should have to pay fines and restitution before regaining the right to vote. Currently, Reynolds approves voting rights restoration applications for individuals who show they are making an effort to pay.

“And one of the things I’m working on is I don’t want it to be harder than what we’re already doing,” Reynolds said.

Andrews repeated her call for the governor to take executive action and restore voting rights while the long constitutional amendment process plays out.

“It passed the House really overwhelmingly, but in the Senate it was a different story,” Andrews said. “So we want to be able to have the opportunity to, in the interim, let’s get that taken care of.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter