- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Inmates in a private-sector job program can have a larger share of wages sent to victims of their crimes and less taken by the state, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday. The decision is a victory for an offender who had been blocked from paying more toward restitution and could have an impact on other inmates, victims who are owed money and the state budget.

Two attorneys not involved in the case said the ruling in favor of inmate Beau Morris may prompt the Iowa Department of Corrections to change its practice of taking fees from inmates’ paychecks before court-ordered debts are paid in full.

Watchdogs such as the state auditor and Iowa ombudsman’s office have contended that the state’s practice may be illegal under a law that gives victim restitution greater priority. The department has interpreted the law differently.

Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote Friday that lawmakers clearly intended for restitution owed to victims to have a higher priority than payments to the department and the state’s general fund. He reinstated an order allowing Morris to apply 50 percent of his earnings to his restitution, rather than 15 percent.

Morris, 45, has said he wants to satisfy the $23,000 in restitution he owed from his 2004 conviction for robbery and second-degree sexual assault. He also plans to seek a commutation of his 42-year mandatory sentence, and must have his restitution paid to apply.

As one of 150 inmates who work for private companies through Iowa Prison Industries, Morris earns $11 hourly installing trim and hardware on cargo trailers at an H & H Trailers plant connected to the Clarinda Correctional Facility. The department requires inmates in the program, which pays higher wages than other prison jobs, to sign agreements on how their earnings will be divided.

Inmates get 20 percent after any child support obligations and taxes are deducted, 5 percent goes to a state crime victim fund and 15 percent goes to state-ordered restitution. The rest goes to the department to offset program costs and the state to reimburse for costs of incarceration.

The department and state received nearly $1.2 million in inmate earnings from the program in 2013. Meanwhile, $490,000 went to restitution.

“You would imagine if they were following the statute correctly, those numbers would be reversed,” said criminal defense attorney Grant Gangestad.

State officials said they are reviewing the ruling.

Morris challenged the state’s practice in 2012 after reading an article about how millions of dollars in restitution payments go unpaid. He said the department was taking $1,000 from him monthly - on top of a 6 percent pay-for-stay surcharge on inmate purchases. Acting as his own attorney, Morris successfully petitioned a judge to increase his restitution to 50 percent of earnings.

But state lawyers refused to comply, filing a motion to rescind it. Judge Christopher McDonald granted the request, finding that the increased restitution violated a state law outlining the distribution of inmate earnings.

Morris appealed to the high court.

“It would be an ‘absurd result’, indeed, if a prisoner who has the means, and the willingness, to pay his restitution, was thwarted by a penal corporation whose only concern is not for public welfare, but rather for the lining of its coffers,” he wrote.

The court agreed that McDonald’s ruling was erroneous. One Des Moines lawyer said the decision creates potential liability for the state.

“It’s interesting an offender is saying, I want more money for restitution, and the state resisted that,” Gary Dickey said. “If you look at it from victims’ perspective, the state has been withholding restitution that they should have been receiving.”


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