Iowa victims group opposing bill on domestic abuse sentences

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2017 7:14 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A bill that would set mandatory minimum prison sentences for repeat domestic abuse offenders in Iowa is drawing opposition from an unlikely source: one of the state's largest advocacy organizations for victims.

Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence is registered against the bill, which is expected for House debate Thursday. Laura Hessburg, the ICADV director of public policy, said the group fears increasing prison penalties could cause unintended consequences such as perpetuating cycles of violence and racial inequality.

"I know it seems odd to people," she said. "Our movement has supported efforts to ensure domestic violence is treated as a serious crime, and we're no less committed to that... But domestic violence is not a single-issue problem. It is rooted in inequality. You can't solve it by addressing one part."

Daniel Zeno, a legislative liaison for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said mandatory sentences can also enhance racial disparities in Iowa prisons.

"We should be figuring out ways to address these very important issues, but without sending even more people to jail," he said.

Under the proposed legislation, individuals convicted of domestic abuse three or more times would be required to serve 20 percent of the maximum sentence before receiving eligibility for parole. It also expands GPS monitoring of offenders and requires the Iowa Department of Corrections to administer risk assessments for some individuals before considering their release.

Earlier in the week, the House had voted to eliminate mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug crimes in order to reduce prison crowding and address racial disparities in sentencing. Rep. Zach Nunn, the floor manager for both bills, said the costs saved from eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders covers some increased expenses in establishing a mandatory minimum for third-time domestic abusers.

Nunn, R-Bondurant, said he recognizes broader concerns in establishing mandatory sentences, but noted racial disparities are mirrored in the survivors of domestic abuse.

"Overwhelmingly, it's minority African American and Latino women who are the primary victims of abuse for those families," he said. "That's not going to change unless we find a way to get people into productive rehabilitation and give them the opportunity to have a healthy life."

Karl Schilling, the president of Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance, said his group is registered in support of the bill. Similar legislation passed in the House last year, but underwent several amendments in the Senate. The House did not revote on the bill, leaving it unsuccessful for that session.

Schilling believes increasing incarceration costs had deterred some lawmakers from supporting the legislation in previous years.

"There's hesitation whenever money is an issue," he said. "It just takes time to talk to legislators and make them aware of the seriousness. It's not just a feel-good bill. There is actually a danger and this can actually do some real good."

This year, the Republican-controlled Senate has indicated support for the legislation. Nunn said the bill will ultimately ensure repeated domestic abuse offenders are not eligible for early release too quickly following a conviction.

"Most importantly, there is clarity for the survivor to know that what the court says is actually going to be upheld," he said. "It affords them the breathing room to start their life over."