The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the state is not wrongfully detaining sex offenders by delaying the treatment they must complete to be considered for parole.
The opinion issued Nov. 23 states that the Iowa Department of Corrections has acted reasonably in attempting to address the fact there are too many sex offenders in the system to provide treatment on a timely basis. Because of these reasonable efforts, the court said, the state is not violating the constitutional rights of the seven Newton Correctional Facility inmates who initiated the case.
Although there is a waiting list of more than 400 inmates to get into treatment, the resulting delays, the court said, are not intended to delay parole hearings or the inmates’ eventual release.
The inmates who sued over the delays in treatment, the court said, are “challenging what they believe to be a Catch-22 in Iowa’s prison system: To be considered meaningfully for parole, these inmates need to have completed the sex offender treatment program (SOTP). But because of limits on resources, this treatment has tended to be available only as the inmate nears his tentative discharge date. The inmates contend, among other things, that this circumstance violates their constitutional right to due process.”
Justice Edward Mansfield, writing for the majority, pointed out that in deciding this case the court viewed its job as “not to approve or disapprove of how the state allocates resources in the prison system,” and noted that “the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) has not postponed treatment in order to delay parole. The problem is simply one of numbers: There are more male sex offenders in Iowa’s prison system than SOTP spots available.”
The justices said the DOC “has been actively addressing the need for sex offender treatment by increasing the number of classes and counselors. The existing waiting list, which prioritizes admission to treatment based on tentative discharge date, is a reasonable way to decide when an offender gets admitted to treatment.”
The court also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court “has cautioned that absent a violation of inmates’ rights, there should not be judicial interference with funding and discretion regarding programming offered.”
The inmates who filed the lawsuit — Travis Bomgaars, Kyle Cross, Anthony Gomez, James Hall, Raymond LaBelle, Shane Millett and Kelly Sand — are considered low-risk or low-moderate risk to reoffend, which means they qualify for a specific track of sex offender treatment that has a waiting list of 419 inmates.
In theory, sex-offender treatment is to begin 18 months before an inmate’s scheduled release date. If there are no open spots in the program, which is often the case, parole can be delayed since the parole board won’t consider an inmate for parole until treatment is complete. The inmates argued the DOC’s inability to provide timely treatment had created a “silent mandatory minimum sentence,” while the state argued that it was acting reasonably by adding more treatment program counselors to help reduce the waiting lists.
At the time of a court hearing in the case, nine counselors were providing treatment at the Newton Correctional Facility. Two more counselors were in training and two were expected to be hired, bring the total number of counselors to 13 – the maximum physical capacity at Newton.
The seven inmates who sued asked the court to consider ordering the DOC to expand treatment by offering it at other state prisons. The court rejected that idea, saying it “would put us in the position of forcing the DOC to spend more money and hire more people,” resulting in the court replacing the budgeting and management priorities of lawmakers and the DOC with its own.