by Marty Ryan
As I was leaving the Annual Iowa CURE meeting this past Sunday, I had a brief conversation with the mother of a former inmate at Iowa Correctional Institute for Women at Mitchellville. She correctly identified the impossibility of any inmate paying off their restitution.
I understand a defendant paying off the damages caused to a victim, but the matter of restitution has gone too far. It began in 1998 when the Iowa Constitution was amended because of a suggestion made by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. He claimed that the Iowa Constitution should be amended to remove the cap of $100 for a simple misdemeanor fine. He didn’t believe that a C-spot was a big enough deterrent.
Prior to 1998, Article One, Section 11 of Iowa’s Constitution stated:
All offences less than felony and in which the punishment does not exceed a fine of One hundred dollars, or imprisonment for thirty days, shall be tried summarily before a Justice of the Peace, or other officer authorized by law, on information under oath, without indictment, or the intervention of a grand jury, saving to the defendant the right of appeal; and no person shall be held to answer for any higher criminal offence, unless on presentment or indictment by a grand jury, except in cases arising in the army, or navy, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger.
The change makes the amendment read:
All offenses less than felony and in which the maximum permissible imprisonment does not exceed thirty days shall be tried summarily before an officer authorized by law, on information under oath, without indictment, or the intervention of a grand jury, saving to the defendant the right of appeal; and no person shall be held to answer for any higher criminal offense, unless on presentment or indictment by a grand jury, except in cases arising in the army, or navy, or in the militia, when in actual service, in time of war or public danger.
The people of Iowa approved the change in constitutional language substantially with 63.9% favoring the ballot measure. By contrast, the amendment adding “women” to the Iowa Equal Rights Act, passed the approval of Iowa voters overwhelmingly with 83.4% of the vote.
Today, a fine for a simple misdemeanor is “a fine of at least sixty-five dollars but not to exceed six hundred twenty-five dollars”. The high end, $650 has become the norm. It starts the spiraling process of people unable to get their head above water. They are unable to pay the fine, the court costs, the surcharges, so they don’t. Next, they are stopped for a minor scheduled violation (fix-it ticket) and find out that there is a warrant for their arrest because they have failed to pay the fine, court costs, etc. So they get slapped with another misdemeanor, or contempt. The financial obligations are piled on. The more judges pile on, the more unrealistic it becomes for the defendant to pay.
The courts, the Iowa Legislature, and county attorneys wonder why we have such a huge figure of unpaid fines, surcharges, etc. The answer is simple. Ever since the thought of “$100 isn’t much anymore” entered minds of exceedingly well-paid public officials, the debt owed to the state, counties and municipalities has increased exponentially. Over $650 million of fines, surcharges, etc. is outstanding. In 1998, the year of the constitutional change, the court debt was $143.4 million.
One hundred dollars is still a lot of money to a large group of Iowans. I knew it back in 1998. But I didn’t do enough to defeat the constitutional amendment. I didn’t think judges would be senseless enough to charge ridiculous amounts in fines to people who couldn’t afford them. I didn’t think prosecutors would be cruel enough to ask for the maximum fine, knowing that they would not be paid. And I didn’t think legislators would be foolish enough to continue their push to increase the add-ons that go with every fine; surcharges, penalties, interest, hiring ruthless, private debt collection companies; and enacting provisions that create more of a hardship for those who can least afford it.
I’m not going to take the blame for allowing the amendment to pass. Someone needs to take the blame for failing to fine the poor a minimum of $65 for a simple misdemeanor. The $650 top end should be reserved for individuals who are capable of paying it; those who earn six-figure salaries, such as the Iowa attorney general.