Criminal justice reform is major theme of Branstad's Condition of the State address

Governor Terry Branstad delivered his annual Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa House and Senate and the Iowa Supreme Court justices yesterday. If you missed the speech, the full prepared text is here. Iowa Public Television posted the video and transcript here. The early part of the 30-minute address included one false or misleading assertion after another.

· “Sound budgeting practices and fiscal discipline now have us ranked as the 3rd best managed state in the nation.” Contrary to the idea that Branstad markedly improved Iowa’s operation, a major investors group also ranked Iowa the third best-managed state in 2010 under Governor Chet Culver, recognizing Iowa’s good fiscal position, high credit ratings from leading agencies, and low debt per capita compared to most other states.

· “The Iowa Economy has created 214,000 new jobs; surpassing our 2010 goal.” Sorry, no. That’s a fake statistic no economist would accept. It’s a shame the governor has instructed Iowa Workforce Development to keep cooking the books on employment.

· “If the state fails to implement managed care, the growth of Medicaid spending will consume virtually all of our revenue growth.” The Branstad administration has not been able to demonstrate that managed care will save the state money. Florida’s Medicaid privatization turned out to be more costly without improving patient care.

I was also disappointed not to hear more specifics about how Branstad envisions spending funds he would like to divert from school infrastructure to water programs. What kind of water quality programs would be prioritized, and who would administer them? Then again, details about this plan may be irrelevant, because Iowa House and Senate leaders don’t sound open to the idea.

For now, I want to focus on a much more promising part of Branstad’s address. To my surprise, the governor devoted a major section–roughly eight minutes of speaking time–to advocating for criminal justice reforms proposed by a working group he appointed in August. The group was charged with developing ideas to increase fairness and reduce racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system. Click here to read the full recommendations released in November. Bleeding Heartland will discuss some of the proposals in more detail in future posts. Advocates for defendants’ rights and racial justice have generally welcomed the proposals.

Although some policies do not go far enough, and other important reforms are missing from the document, I’m encouraged to see the governor apply some political capital toward reducing systemic racism and inequities in the justice system. I enclose below the relevant portion of Branstad’s speech, with some annotations.

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to mention one thing Branstad could do immediately to address a massive racial disparity in Iowa. His executive order making it extremely difficult for felons to regain their voting rights disenfranchises Iowans of all ethnic backgrounds but disproportionately affects racial minorities.

Note: The prepared text is not exactly how Branstad delivered the speech. Though most deviations were minor and inconsequential, I’m using the more accurate transcript that appears on Iowa Public Television’s website. IPTV helpfully noted where lawmakers applauded the governor’s remarks. I added notes in brackets to show where they gave him a standing ovation.

From Governor Terry Branstad’s 2016 Condition of the State address:

Branstad: Our state flag is emblazoned with the motto, Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain. Maintaining our rights means we must maintain those rights for all. It’s time for a fresh look at our criminal justice system in Iowa to ensure we’re doing the right thing for all of our citizens.

(applause) [and standing ovation]

Branstad: Last year I was invited to participate on a panel at the NAACP’s Iowa Summit on Justice and Disparities. I was invited by my friend, Betty Andrews, who has joined us today. Betty is the President of the NAACP Chapter for Iowa and Nebraska. Betty, thank you for being here. Please stand and be recognized.

(applause) [and standing ovation]

Branstad: At the Summit, I announced the formation of a bipartisan working group on justice policy reform tasked with researching and making policy recommendations. The working group consisted of representatives from state and local government and the NAACP. The efforts of the working group and the advocacy of Betty Andrews and others convinced me that we all need to work together to address justice in Iowa.

(applause)

Branstad: Ensuring fundamental fairness of our system is a worthy goal. But a fair and more equitable criminal justice system also aligns with the long-term interests of taxpayers who fund our criminal justice system. For example, in many cases, tax dollars may be better spent on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

(applause) [and standing ovation]

Branstad: We can protect the public while rehabilitating those who have committed crimes. We can take steps to ensure that the most serious of crimes are punished with the most serious of penalties. We can take steps to make sure that when our criminal justice system does impose punishment that we’re punishing the right person and that race does not play a role.

(applause) [and standing ovation]

Branstad: Let’s take action this year in all three branches of government to improve our criminal justice system. In the executive branch, our state public defender Adam Gregg established a new wrongful conviction division to investigate wrongful convictions of innocent people. [Note: Bleeding Heartland covered that initiative here.] These efforts will not only bring justice for those who have been wrongfully incarcerated, but will protect public safety by ensuring that the right person is held responsible when a crime is committed. We’re already seeing a decline in our prison population and simultaneously a reduction in the rate of recidivism because of the collaboration between the parole board and the Department of Corrections. We’re more focused on providing individuals in the corrections system with the skills they need for rewarding careers once they are released, including apprenticeships within the institutions.

Branstad: The Department of Corrections has dramatically reduced phone fees as recommended by the Governor’s working group.

(applause)

Branstad: Because we know increased communications between inmates and their families while incarcerated will lead to a lower rate of reoffending when released. The executive branch is not alone in taking action. As you know, Chief Justice Mark Cady has become a leader in seeking to address the significant racial disparities which have become evident in the Iowa criminal justice system. I applaud his efforts. [Note: Those problems were a major theme in Cady’s annual speech to lawmakers last year.]

(applause) [and standing ovation]

Branstad: You judges can stand for this too along with everybody else.

(applause)

Branstad: Thank you. Thank you. I thought I could get the judges to stand once, but, anyway, thank you very much. In addition, the courts are working to implement some of the working group recommendations such as improving the jury selection process to ensure racial diversity of jury panels, which in turn helps assure a fair trial for all. I look forward to working with all of you in the General Assembly to improve our criminal justice system by examining how we can protect our children and family members from human trafficking, combat domestic violence and examine the funding model for drug and mental health courts. [Note: The Des Moines Register’s Grant Rodgers published an excellent piece last August on uncertain funding for Iowa’s drug courts.]

A significant recommendation of the Governor’s working group included the confidentiality of juvenile delinquency records. Currently under most circumstances the juvenile delinquency records are public records. That means that a juvenile, even with a minor theft or minor drug possession, can be haunted by that mistake for the rest of their life when they apply for college, for a job, for an apartment or for the military. Some of our friends and neighbors who made some poor decisions when they were young continue to face significant roadblocks to success throughout their entire life.

Branstad: We must examine whether these policies are truly protecting the public or simply blocking the path to career success for impacted Iowans. A minor crime should not be a lifelong barrier to a successful career.

(applause)

Branstad: Juvenile records should remain confidential unless a judge specifically finds that disclosure is in the best interest of the child and the public. This would allow public disclosure on serious cases, while giving judges discretion to allow confidentiality in cases involving minor offenses.

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