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State Officials Discuss Efforts to Prevent Criminal Relapsing

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Reducing the rate of recidivism, the act of a person "relapsing" into criminal behavior after exiting prison, was the focus of a meeting among Iowa lawmakers and organizations Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and lawmakers from both the House and Senate heard from a panel of speakers representing different groups in the state who work toward reducing recidivism in Iowa.

"Nationally, two-thirds of individuals released from our state prisons are expected to be re-arrested, re-convicted or re-incarcerated," said Dr. Stefan LoBuglio, with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. "About 51 percent of those will be incarcerated. And one could sort of look at that time-span and think, 'Boy, our economy has changed, so many things in our society have changed, maybe this is an invariant factor that just really can't be changed. But the evidence shows otherwise, the evidence shows that when we use research we can find those programs that can work."

Part of Thursday's panel included an update on Iowa's prison system, and what leaders are doing on the ground. Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, Jerry Bartruff, told the room his group is working to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons to under 8,000 within the next few months. The importance of easy access to mental healthcare facilities was another strategy discussed.

But the most emotional testimony came from Deb Theeler, an Iowan who served 52 months in prison in 1999. She now runs five halfway houses, helping others in her shoes. She told Iowa leaders programs need to focus on uplifting and encouraging those who recently returned to the "real world" from prison.

"Do not consider yourself a part of the clearance rack; you are a new arrival," she said. "You don't have to feel like you are...the best you can do is work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. You may have to start there. But that's just a start. But you are not in the clearance rack, you are in the new arrival rack."

Thursday's panel discussion acted as more of a "brainstorm session" than anything else; no policy action came from the meeting, but leaders from various groups represented at the meeting say it's important to start having all-inclusive conversations on these issues to see real reform.