Criminal Justice Reform Advocate Compares Kim Reynolds to MLK Jr., JFK

But beyond rhetoric, there's little the governor has done to show she's truly committed to meaningful reforms

A fawning column published last Tuesday in the Des Moines Register by the director of a national criminal justice reform group active in the state heaped praise on Kim Reynolds, claiming she “deliver[ed a] speech of a lifetime” during her recent visit to the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville for a high school-equivalent graduation ceremony and even comparing the governor to Martin Luther King Jr. But Reynolds has done little beyond offering lip service to show she’s truly interested in reforms.

The column’s author, Holly Harris, commended Reynolds for supposedly working to change the stigma people with criminal records have when they try to find jobs and move on with life — merely by delivering a speech — explaining how the governor related to the prisoners by discussing her own widely known history of alcoholism (she was twice convicted on drunk-driving charges) and how she finally received a liberal studies degree last year from Iowa State University at the age of 57.

“On the way home” from the prison, Harris wrote, “I started thinking about the rare person who can give a speech that changes a life. Certainly Billy Graham did it, and Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. On Sept. 28, 2017, I watched Kim Reynolds change the lives of the graduating class at the Iowa Women’s Correctional Institution.

“I’ll never forget it. And neither will they.”

Harris, a Republican who runs the bipartisan Justice Action Network, offered no real evidence that Reynolds changed anyone’s life through her speechifying — and that, of course, would be hard to immediately prove. Her visit — the first for an Iowa governor to a prison graduation ceremony, according to Harris — was undeniably meaningful, and the ACLU of Iowa even gave her kudos for it on Twitter. But there’s still plenty of reason to be skeptical of Reynolds’ actual commitment to criminal justice reform.

Reynolds’ own political record is limited, because she’s only been governor for four months and served just a single term in the state Senate from 2009 to 2010. But she also served since January 2011 as lieutenant governor under Terry Branstad, who that year signed an executive order preventing felons from automatically regaining their voting rights after serving their sentences, making Iowa one of the only states in the nation where felons are permanently disenfranchised unless they are able to make a successful (and burdensome) appeal directly to the governor. Changing felony disenfranchisement laws, which disproportionately impact minorities in Iowa and other states — deliberately, historically — is a major priority of many criminal justice reform advocates. “These laws were borne out of the concept of a punitive criminal justice system — those convicted of a crime had violated social norms, and, therefore, had proven themselves unfit to participate in the political process,” another national reform group, The Sentencing Project, explains.

Branstad has also been a longtime opponent of meaningful drug policy reforms, and in the ’90s, when Des Moines police were warning lawmakers that gangbangers were flocking to Iowa because of its supposedly lax penalties against crack cocaine, he argued that the death penalty should be brought back for “juvenile delinquents that are committing adult crimes.”

Reynolds’ own position on capital punishment is less clear, but some of her past statements on related issues are not reform-oriented. During her run for lieutenant governor in 2010, for instance, she suggested that doctors who perform abortions should (maybe) be charged with murder. Regardless, the death penalty has been abolished in Iowa since 1965, and although his views didn’t change Branstad acknowledged in 2012 that there was no “realistic chance” that it would be reinstated.

Where Reynolds could make an immediate difference in support of criminal justice reform, to destigmatize ex-felons and reduce their lingering sense of otherness, is with felony disenfranchisement, by signing an executive order to repeal Branstad’s and reimplement Gov. Tom Vilsack’s, which from 2005 until 2011 automatically restored the voting rights of felons, including those locked up at the Mitchellville women’s prison, upon the completion of their sentences. But the Branstad administration showed no interest in such reforms, defending disenfranchisement at the state Supreme Court and further criminalizing ex-felons who mistakenly vote through the secretary of state’s office.

Recently, the Branstad and now Reynolds administrations have made a handful of minor but potentially significant steps toward criminal justice reform. In his 2016 Condition of the State address, Branstad highlighted criminal justice issues, noting efforts to limit the growth of the state’s prison population and that then-state public defender Adam Gregg, who now serves as Reynolds’ acting lieutenant governor, had established a division in his office to investigate wrongful convictions. Later that year, in a move applauded by reformers, he signed a bill opening the door to early release for about 1,000 nonviolent drug offenders.

In the speech, Branstad also commended Betty Andrews, the head of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, who in 2013 launched the annual Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities (the fifth summit will be held Tuesday and include Gregg among its keynote speakers). At last year’s summit, he announced the formation of a state working group on justice reforms. Among the group’s recommendations (PDF) was ensuring dedicated state funding for drug and mental health courts, which was soon put in jeopardy by the Iowa GOP’s 2017 budget cuts. (In March, Reynolds did announce the expanded availability of Naxolone, an opioid-overdose medicine, although the response to the opioid crisis throughout the state remains harshly punitive.)

The Iowa ACLU and other advocates have said that several of the other recent efforts don’t go far enough, either, and Branstad himself contributed to many of state’s current problems when in the ’90s he oversaw the construction of three new state prisons. Iowa continues to have one of highest levels of racial disparities in the nation in its prison population, particularly with drug arrests, on which Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy director Steve Lukan has maintained a hard prohibitionist line despite the state’s recent modest expansion of its limited medical marijuana program.

It remains unclear how much effort Reynolds will exert going forward to address these systemic problems. But unless and until she takes more meaningful action, it’s a gross exaggeration to compare her words to those of true reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.