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Iowa remains the only state without a compassionate release program

Holding cells at a former prison.
Tracy King
Iowa's parole board says it "does not grant paroles due to medical reasons or for family hardship circumstances."

A new report from an advocacy group for criminal justice reform shows Iowa is far behind other states with compassionate release programs.

Compassionate release programs allow for incarcerated people, generally near the end of their life, to apply for release from prison due to factors like debilitating illnesses or injuries or age-related chronic conditions. According to the report from FAMM, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, Iowa is the only state without one.

The Iowa Board of Parole says it "does not grant paroles due to medical reasons or for family hardship circumstances."

Majority of state's failed FAMM's report, with only four states and Washington D.C. receiving A's and a handful landing somewhere in the middle.

Mary Price FAMM's general counsel, said keeping someone who is sick and near death in prison is not only costly for the state, but also can cause excessive suffering.

"It means that people in Iowa will die in prison after incarceration has lost any meaning for them or for the people of Iowa," Price said. "There is a point at which continued imprisonment is just the imposition of suffering."

She said the cost of hospice care or care for people with chronic conditions can be expensive for state prisons.

"I understand the need to be sure that we're safe as a community from people that we've incarcerated because it made us unsafe, but I also feel like we ought to take a look at who's in prison and for how long and whether they ought to stay there, starting with the sickest and the oldest and the dying," she said.

Alison Guernsey directs the University of Iowa’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic. She said one of the reasons it’s disappointing that there’s no compassionate release program here is that it’s a poor reflection of Iowa’s justice system.

"I think that mercy and second chances are really important philosophical things for us to embed in our judicial and legal systems. And so it seems quite behind the times not to have a mechanism for just the mercy purposes," she said.

Guernsey, who works with people in the federal justice system, said a lack of state program can also create disparities between people sentenced at the federal and state levels in Iowa.

"Imagine somebody in Iowa who gets charged in federal court and is sentenced in federal court for maybe a drug crime or some other offense that could also be charged in state court is going to have the opportunity to apply for compassionate release in the federal level...and someone who's sentenced at the state isn't going to have that same opportunity."

While programs vary widely between states, high ranking programs have a few things in common, like transparency in the process, strong and clear policies and have release planning support in place, Price said.

Price said despite its zero score, Iowa is in a good position to develop a compassionate release program, since it would start from the ground up.

"I think that there's just a community of people that can come together to talk about creating a compassionate release program, which I would expect would be would be welcome in Iowa," she said.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.