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Iowa panel urged to keep criminal justice reform talks going

Iowa panel urged to keep criminal justice reform talks going

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DES MOINES | A state criminal justice policy reform work group had nearly completed its duties when Linda Carter-Lewis stood and made a passionate plea.

"Somewhere, some way, in some shape or some form … there's got to be some kind of result from this committee or all of your time has been wasted, and we will continue to be No. 1 on polls and statistics that we don’t want to be No. 1 on," Carter-Lewis said. "We've got to take this seriously."

The work group was charged with making policy recommendations related to state criminal justice reform. It met for the last time Thursday at the Iowa Capitol and will report its recommendations to the governor and state lawmakers by Nov. 6.

The work group plans to make recommendations under four main areas of criminal justice policy reform:

• Properly fund, streamline and make accessible drug courts and mental health courts.

• Use new technological tools to diversify jury pools.

• Make juvenile delinquency records confidential unless a judge rules otherwise.

• Take steps to reduce the rates for prison and jail phone calls.

Once completed and presented, the group's recommendations will be posted online at comment.iowa.gov, where the public will be able to comment.

Carter-Lewis, who lives in Des Moines, was one of a handful of speakers from the public who urged the state to maintain a focus on criminal justice policy reform issues and not let the discussion fade at the Capitol.

Iowa has the worst black-to-white rate of incarceration in the nation, 13.6-to-1, according to a 2007 study by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group for criminal justice reform.

"We just want to make sure that attention remains on this, because we feel very strongly that we are in a state of crisis, particularly with the disparities," said Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and a member of the work group.

A suggestion that the state’s Public Safety Advisory Board could continue the work of the temporary work group was met with mixed feelings.

Advocates for criminal justice reform said they appreciated the effort to maintain discussions over criminal justice reform issues by a permanent state board, but they also expressed reservations in that the board meets only quarterly and has not recently discussed criminal justice reform issues such as racial profiling.

"Ad hoc advisory groups are not going to get the job done. It's too fragmented," said Russell Lovell, a professor from Drake University Law School. "The time is now, and we strongly urge you to let the governor know that. … Iowa needs to get a sense of the urgency."

State lawmakers will consider the work group's recommendations during the 2016 legislative session, which begins in January.

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