- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa inmates convicted of certain drug offenses and serving mandatory minimum sentences may get less time in prison under a bill signed into law Thursday that advocates say will also reduce the disproportionate number of minorities in the state’s criminal justice system.

The legislation, which also updates sentencing penalties on crimes involving child endangerment and robbery, will allow certain non-violent drug offenders in Iowa to be eligible for parole after they serve at least half of their mandatory minimum sentence. The law goes into effect July 1. The provisions for non-violent drug offenses will apply retroactively, meaning some people already serving time may be able to get out after serving half of the minimum term.

“This is an important step that can help in reducing our prison population while still keeping our community safe,” Gov. Terry Branstad said before signing the bill at the Capitol.

The law is expected to reduce the disproportionate number of minorities in Iowa’s criminal justice system. Iowa had just over 8,000 prison inmates in June 2015, according to data provided by state corrections officials. More than 25 percent of that group is African-American, though blacks made up less than 4 percent of the state’s general population in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates more than 14 percent of the inmates released under this law will be African-American. The U.S. Justice Action Network praised the legislation when it received final approval in the legislative chambers in April.

Rep. Dave Dawson, D-Sioux City, was involved in gathering support for the bill, which initially focused on adding mandatory minimum sentencing for a person convicted of child endangerment resulting in death. The additional components were later added, including giving judges more discretion in sentencing for crimes such as robbery.

Dawson said all mandatory minimum sentencing in the state should be reviewed. He noted a failed proposal that would have given more discretion in sentencing for violent felonies that he said would have taken “more closely into account the facts of each case.”

“I’m hopeful that the Legislature will consider that in future sessions,” he said.

The child endangerment component of the law has special significance for Jeri King. The Hiawatha resident was at the signing with a large photo of her granddaughter, Kamryn Schlitter. The girl’s father and his former girlfriend were convicted in the toddler’s 2010 death. King was dismayed when she realized both were eligible for parole immediately under Iowa law. The new law will make the minimum length of a prison sentence 15 to 35 years for such a child endangerment conviction.

King said this won’t change the circumstances of her granddaughter’s case, but “it’ll help ease the burden of the families that’ll face this in the future.”

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