About the sentences Iowa’s courts impose

The court sentence is the bane of the career for every honest journalist (yes, both of ’em).

I want you to make me a promise. Don’t listen to a thing we tell you about them.

Because every time we report on what a judge has sentenced some ruthless bastard to, we’re lying to you. And worse, we know it. For those reporters who care, it’s hard to sleep that night, or to look at ourselves in the mirror the next morning.

The honest truth, there’s not a snowball’s chance the criminal will actually serve that sentence that we reported. They probably won’t even do close to half of it.

And you can’t even lambast anyone for falling down on the job because of it. There is so much crime that if everyone served the full sentences their crimes call for, there wouldn’t be enough jail cells on earth to hold them. You couldn’t build prisons fast enough. It is also true that people do turn over a new life. There may be a case where a person has made a terrible mistake, can become a better person, and have something to offer free society. Our whole system of justice and parole is based on that belief. We should still believe in it, though in my experience, a convict is more likely to become worse through prison by exposure to and learning from even more horrid people.

All this doesn’t make it any easier to sit in a courtroom and report to you that a someone who has done terrible things has been sentenced to “x” impressive number of years, when it simply isn’t true.

Don’t believe it.

Most criminals will qualify for “earned time” in Iowa. That means that for every day they serve, they get 1.2 days taken off their sentence (unless they do something incredibly stupid while in prison and break enough rules to get some added back.) It is automatic, and does not reflect anything done to deserve it. In essence, the day they arrive, their sentence is well under half what a judge gave to them.

From there, parole may cut the sentence considerably more. Parole is supposed to take place in recognition of a successful reformation, to signal that the inmate is no longer a threat to the public, past victims or themselves. Supposed to be. That’s a lie too. Today parole just as much seems to signify that a prison is full, and that a somewhat dangerous person is being freed to.

It’s not uncommon for an editor like me to check the rap sheet for someone arrested for say drug dealing or domestic assault in a rural county in this part of Iowa, and find the creep has been arrested five times, 10 times, even more, for similar and very serious crimes, in a few years’ time. Found guilty time after time, tying up our overworked court systems.

Cops are doing their jobs, prosecutors are too, and judges and juries. And in a couple months, the criminal will likely be back on the street again, and again, until he or she finally hurts someone beyond repair.

Among themselves, officers sometimes refer to them as “frequent fliers” because they have been arrested so often. Ten or 20 of these serial abusers probably account for a goodly chunk of the crimes committed in your city.

So please don’t, believe a word people like me report about a judge handing down a sentence, ever. Know that we are ashamed even to put the number in print.

Remember Kirk Levin? He served 26 months out of a five-year prison term and was let free, despite having admitted planning to rape women and warnings from a prison psychologist that he was likely to act on violent fantasies. Hours later, he had strangled and repeatedly stabbed his own mother to death in her bedroom in Early. Corrections and prison officials say there was nothing they could have done, he was due to be let go.

How about Brian Davis? In 1995 the family of slain Julie Kay Baack, of LeMars, watched him be sentenced to 50 years in the killing. Davis was released this year. He did 17 years – barely a third of his sentence.

Or Heidi Watkins. In 2000, she was sentenced to 50 years for child endangerment in the sad and brutal demise of her 2-year-old daughter, Shelby Duis, of Spirit Lake. An angry judge at the time of trial intoned to the defendant, “You chose to sacrifice her on the alter of illicit sex and illegal drugs.” The Iowa Board of Parole has just released Watkins. She served less than 13 years of a 50-year-sentence. Even with full “earned time” she would have been held until November of 2022.

If we can’t hold people in prison for their crimes, let’s at least be honest about it up front, and make the sentence handed out in a courtroom reflect what is actually likely to served. Victims and their loved ones deserve the truth – that the abuser will back.

The truth?

Ten years in Iowa means at most four and change after their earned time. And Iowa Parole Board, why not let people in violent public-safety-threat crimes at least do that fraction of their time?

Dana Larsen is editor of the Pilot-Tribune in Storm Lake and a former staff writer at The Messenger.