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Family members of Iowans serving life sentences ask lawmakers to change the commutation process

Clyde Johnson during a June 3, 2021 commutation interview with the Iowa Board of Parole. At 88 years old, he has served 52 years on a life sentence for first degree murder.
Courtesy of the Iowa Board of Parole
Clyde Johnson during a June 3, 2021 commutation interview with the Iowa Board of Parole. At 88 years old, he has served 52 years on a life sentence for first degree murder.

Iowans who have loved ones in prison came to the Statehouse Monday to ask lawmakers to change the state’s process for considering commutation requests from those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

A three-member panel of state representatives unanimously advanced a bipartisan proposalMonday that they’re calling the “lifers’ second chance bill.”

Jerry Bogart of Indianola said his wife Tracy Hardin is serving a life sentence without parole for a first-degree murder conviction.

“The safeguards and parameters and the objectivity that is being introduced to the process as part of this bill are absolutely crucial to people like Tracy,” Bogart said. “And she’s only been in prison for 27 years, so she would have another eight years to go before she even qualifies for this. But it’s things like this that will give her the hope to keep going.”

Current law allows people sentenced to life in prison to apply once every 10 years for commutation. They have to get unanimous support from the board of parole and approval from the governor.

If a commutation request is approved, release from prison is not guaranteed. The incarcerated person’s sentence may be changed to a number of years, or they might become eligible to apply for conditional release.

Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, is the lead sponsor of the bill that 40 other lawmakers are co-sponsoring. He said it’s meant to give the board of parole and the governor more guidance and more information about the legislature’s intent for the commutation process.

“This bill looks at the original crime, and also, it looks at progress towards rehabilitation,” Baxter said. “We want to see if that person has made some significant, meaningful and lasting change.”

Baxter said some people incarcerated for life “deserve a second look.”

The bill would allow people incarcerated for at least 35 years of a life sentence to apply for commutation every five years if they are also classified as minimum security. It would require majority support—not unanimous support—for the board of parole to recommend commutation. The bill also establishes criteria that the board and governor should consider in making that decision.

Stormy Poss of Sioux City said her brother has been in prison for more than 40 years and applied for a commutation.

“They called him the poster child for what they were looking for,” Poss said. “’You are the poster child for what we’re looking at to get out.’ But he can’t, because one other person on the committee said no. And that’s it.”

Poss said the bill would make meaningful changes while still leaving commutations in the hands of the board of parole and the governor.

Iowa has seen a significant decline in commutations in the past few decades. The last time an Iowa governor commuted a life sentence was in 2013.

“Judges do the best they can…to achieve the ends of restorative justice and retributive justice, to achieve deterrence and incapacitation when necessary, but they can’t see into the future,” said Paul Esker, an attorney from Cedar Rapids. “So we have this critical safeguard of commutation. But in Iowa, the problem is that this safeguard is not utilized, almost ever.”

Teono Smith, a business owner in Des Moines, said his father Bobby Smith is serving a life sentence in Fort Madison.

“I fully support this, you know, believing that he should be given a second chance because he’s at minimum points, he’s a model offender,” Smith said. “Like when the prison goes on lockdown, he’s one of the ones that can actually move around. He organizes fundraisers. He’s just doing great.”

He said his dad has been in prison for more than 30 years and his health is getting worse. But he said his dad still keeps in touch with all his kids and grandkids. He said he hopes lawmakers pass the bill to change the commutation policy.

No one at the subcommittee Monday spoke against the bill, but Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance, and the Iowa County Attorneys Association are registered in opposition to the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter