Keep the community in Community-Based Corrections

Story County Supervisor Linda Murken chairs the board of directors of the Second Judicial District Department of Correctional Services. This commentary was jointly signed by the chairs of the Boards of Directors of all eight Iowa Judicial District Departments of Correctional Services (names are listed below).

Community-Based Corrections or CBC provides a vital service to Iowa communities. In corrections, prisons and jails are well known. But you may not be aware of community-based corrections, because that part of the system has been operating quietly in the background for the past 50 years, saving millions in taxpayer dollars. 

Unfortunately, Governor Kim Reynolds' proposal to reorganize state government may have serious unintended consequences to our unique and effective system. We are asking all Iowans to learn about CBC to understand why its current structure is valuable. 

Community-based corrections provide services to Iowans involved with the criminal justice system, from pretrial release all the way through to parole. The majority of our clients are on probation, given an opportunity to remain in the community while on supervision in lieu of going to prison. 

The state of Iowa is divided into eight judicial districts (see map above). Each judicial district’s Department of Community-Based Corrections is governed by a board comprised of a county supervisor from each county in the respective district, along with individuals appointed by the chief judge and local citizen representatives. Each CBC was designed to serve the unique needs of its district. Those who developed the system understood that each community in Iowa and its citizens should have the responsibility to decide locally what programming best suits the needs of the area. 

Even though each CBC district is unique to the people and businesses within each district, CBCs have much in common. They work hard to assist individuals who are involved in criminal justice and ordered to be supervised within our communities. We work with clients to make the necessary positive changes in their lives to prevent continued criminal behavior (resulting in fewer victims).

Community-based corrections have been increasing mental health, drug and alcohol treatment options, personal values alignment classes and positive life choices. We assist clients in removing barriers, encourage their progress, and walk alongside them through accountability to ensure they follow through with supervision and treatment in the community. CBCs have developed nationally recognized programs using technology to increase access to services in rural communities. 

CBCs have connections with faith based and non-profit agencies in our communities, as well as government-supported programs and employers. Keeping clients in the community allows our businesses to fill jobs and helps our clients pay taxes, support their families, and pay victim restitution.

At the same time, CBCs provide a significant savings to the taxpayer. While it costs on average $106 per day to keep someone in prison, it costs just $7 per day to supervise someone in the community. CBCs currently employ 31 percent of the corrections system staff, yet supervise 84 percent of the corrections system population. In its nearly 50 years of existence, CBCs have provided an excellent return on the taxpayer’s investment. 

The proposal to restructure state government would combine all eight CBCs under the larger Department of Corrections, which operates Iowa’s prisons. This is a part of a realignment bill spanning more than 1,500 pages, which is making its way through the legislative process. While there are many admirable components of this comprehensive bill, we believe Division XIV, which applies to community-based corrections, may have some unintended consequences that Iowa lawmakers and the public need to thoughtfully consider. 

First, the Department of Corrections has repeatedly stated the need for consistency across the state. However, consistency does not equal excellence. CBCs individually strive for excellence in ways that are unique to each district's community needs. The CBCs are consistent in our purchase of service agreements, human resource management, in meeting accreditation standards, utilizing statewide procurement processes, and submitting our budgets for approval by the department. We employ many standards and policies for efficient client operations.

Secondly, the Department of Corrections has stated a goal of efficiency in prison releases. CBCs fully support efficiency, provided it does not come at the expense of public safety.

We also fully support Governor Reynolds’ goals of increased accountability, excellence in services for Iowans, and smaller state government. We believe maintaining the current governing structure of CBCs can achieve those objectives. In Iowa, we know that bigger is not always better. We are concerned that by transitioning our eight smaller CBC agencies into one larger government agency, we will lose the shared responsibility and investment that comes with managing these services locally.

The Iowa CBC system was innovative at the time of its inception, and other states followed suit. Colorado, Minnesota, and Oregon still have corrections programs modeled after Iowa’s original design, and they are all well regarded programs pursuing excellence, just like Iowa. 

As you weigh the pros and cons of the proposed legislation, the end result will be much like the choice between a local small business or a giant corporation. Where is the service usually better, in your experience? Keeping Iowa’s eight CBCs modeled after small businesses, governed by individuals closest to the communities they serve, will continue to provide the exemplary results that Iowans have a right to expect. 

Submitted by the Chairs of the Boards of Directors of the Judicial District Departments of Correctional Services

John Shook, First District. Advisory Committee Delegate

Linda Murken, Second District, Story County Supervisor

Nancy McDowell, Third District, O’Brien County Supervisor

Lonnie Mayberry, Fourth District, Mills County Supervisor

Tom Hockensmith, Fifth District, Polk County Supervisor

Keith Rippey, Sixth District, Judicial Delegate

Shawn Roth, Seventh District, Citizen Appointee

John Hughes, Eighth District, Monroe County Supervisor

Editor's note from Laura Belin: When the Iowa Senate debated the governor's reorganization plan on March 7, Democratic State Senators Molly Donahue and Todd Taylor offered an amendment to strike language from the bill affecting community-based corrections, preserving the independence of those district-level boards. The Senate voted down the amendment by 32 votes to 17, with one Republican (Dan Dawson) joining all Democrats to support the amendment. The Senate later approved the bill, Senate File 514, along party lines. The Iowa House has not yet debated the measure.

Top image: Map of Iowa's judicial districts, courtesy of the Iowa Judicial Branch website.

  • Governor Kim Reynolds' proposal to reorganize state government may have serious unintended consequences to our unique and effective system.

    With all the good community-based corrections does, it’s hard to imagine the governor’s intentions weren’t “intentional.” Since here first sniff of Trump’s hairspray, KR has had every intention of making Iowa‘s government as free of services as possible. The Senate vote was really ominous and foreboding, pretty much SOP.

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