Iowa ranks 50th on report ranking states’ compassionate release programs

DES MOINES — Iowa is the only state without a compassionate release program for prison inmates, ranking Iowa at the very bottom of a new report comparing state programs. They allow inmates, generally near the end of their lives, to apply for release due to factors like debilitating illnesses, injuries or age-related chronic conditions.

Mary Price is general counsel for FAMM, a criminal justice reform advocacy group that issued the report. Price says keeping someone who is sick and near death in prison is not only costly for the state, but also can cause excessive suffering.

Price says, “It means that people in Iowa will die in prison after incarceration has lost any meaning for them or for the people of Iowa.” Price says programs vary widely between states, but if it’s wanted, Iowa is well-positioned to build a program from the ground up and include a range of stakeholders.

Alison Guernsey directs the University of Iowa’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic. Guernsey says one of the reasons it’s disappointing there’s no compassionate release program here is that it’s a poor reflection of Iowa’s justice system.

“I think that mercy and second chances are really important philosophical things for us to embed in our judicial and legal systems,” Guernsey says, “and so it seems quite behind the times not to have a mechanism for just the mercy purposes.”

Two neighboring states received high marks in the report. Illinois earned an A, and Minnesota received a B-minus. Iowa’s other neighbors also failed, but scored more points than Iowa’s zero.