Iowa is one of the most difficult states in the nation for an inmate serving a life sentence to gain release, says the Des Moines Register, citing a study issued by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group The Sentencing Project. Iowa’s three most recent governors have commuted life sentences only nine times in 26 years. At the same time, the number of lifers in Iowa’s prison system has risen dramatically, from 162 inmates in 1983 to 617 today, an increase of 281 percent.
Critics want to reduce that number, citing the high cost – nearly $19 million a year to house current lifers – and in lost human potential. That notion threatens to disturb Iowa’s uneasy truce over capital punishment: Iowa lawmakers have repeatedly rejected the death penalty, but only because “life means life” for the most serious crimes, noted Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. The issue highlights the conflict between two deeply held societal views about crime and punishment: that everyone deserves a second chance, and that some crimes against society are so heinous that criminals must forever forfeit their freedom.