Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of the Clinton Herald’s look at the use of deferred judgments in Clinton County. Part 2 on Monday will examine the data of how often those judgments are handed down. 

CLINTON — The Clinton County Attorney’s Office weighs several factors in determining whether an individual being sentenced on a felony charge receives a deferred judgment, suspended sentence or prison sentence. 

Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf stated the Clinton County Attorney’s Office considers multiple factors before making a recommendation to the district court during a sentencing hearing. They consider the victim and the victim’s wishes, as victims are sometimes not willing to go to trial or would like to see a result other than a prison sentence. The state also considers the harm to the victim, the impact on the community, safety of the public and circumstances of the offense, such as if the crime was a property crime or a crime of violence. The state additionally considers the defendant’s level of cooperation with law enforcement, the defendant’s remorse, possibility of rehabilitation and the likely penalties the court will impose.

Wolf said the county attorney’s office factors in whether the court regularly sentences defendants to probation for a particular offense when offering a plea deal. 

Under Iowa Code, the court, with the consent of the defendant, may defer judgment and may place the defendant on probation, with required conditions to be met. A civil penalty is assessed on a deferred judgment.

The court cannot defer judgment if multiple requirements are not met.

The defendant cannot have a previous felony conviction, and, prior to the commission of the offense, may not have been granted a deferred judgment or similar relief two or more times anywhere in the United States. The defendant also cannot have been granted a deferred judgment or similar relief in a felony prosecution anywhere in the United States within the preceding five years.

A suspended sentence with probation or a prison sentence also are options for judges when sentencing a defendant.

“A deferred judgment is a sentencing option that is available to the judge if an offender is eligible,” Wolf said. “This office, in very limited situations, will recommend a deferred judgment. Deferred judgments are generally used to give a person without a prior criminal history and who deserve a second chance an opportunity to do just that, by making whole what they damaged or hurt. Often a conviction can impact a person for a lifetime which is disproportionate to the offense. The defendant and the community can both win if the defendant never darkens the door of the jailhouse and gets a job to be a taxpayer instead of a tax taker.”

Attorney Judd Parker believes it is important for citizens to recognize the criminal justice system for most crimes cannot, will not and should not incarcerate people forever. He said this makes rehabilitation vital for defendants to aid them in becoming productive and safe members of society. He said a deferred judgment can provide motivation to a defendant to successfully complete probation and pay civil penalties in order to have the charge expunged, or removed from the public record.

“I think of this as a nice carrot, but it is backed by a big stick,” Parker said. “Violation of that probation may lead to resentencing, at which time the court may impose the maximum sentence and may include incarceration. It is an opportunity to turn things around, but with the possibility of not only being right back at sentencing, but with much worse prospects. I often hear complaints about deferred judgments, generally accusing it of being too soft of a punishment, but I would urge people to consider the impact any conviction may have on a person’s ability to become employed, further their education, obtain or keep housing, among other indirect impacts. All things we want people to have and achieve, but may be seriously impaired by a conviction, often at a young age and continuing throughout their life.” 

Parker said his role as a defense attorney differs from the roles of the county attorney, law enforcement, a probation officer and the judge. Parker, when serving as a defense attorney at sentencing, is a representative and adviser of the defendant in an adversarial process. Parker as a defense attorney is ethically obligated to present his client’s position, adding he may advise his client that a particular outcome is unlikely under the factual circumstances. He is still obligated to present the client’s position to the court as best as he can. 

“To that end it is very important to conduct a thorough examination of my client’s life and essentially look at why we are at the stage of sentencing,” Parker said. “To that end, there are some general factors that we look at, which are similar for the prosecutor and judge in their evaluations, including age, social history, criminal history, current charge, employment, education, substance abuse and mental health, and support in the community to mention some of the main ones. But at its basic, it is a look at the defendant’s prospects for rehabilitation.”

Felony charges in Iowa carry indeterminate sentences, meaning the sentences have maximum sentences set by law but are for no exact amount of time. Parker said the indeterminate sentencing is a factor in weighing a prison sentence versus a period of probation. He said the judge, in felony court, generally does not have the option to send a defendant to the county jail for a month, but may have to sentence a defendant up to five years or more in prison, depending on the charge. 

“A deferred judgment is one of the most useful and forward-thinking tools the legislature has provided us,” Parker said. “I know of many success stories involving deferred judgments, often moving on from potentially life altering convictions, able to once again hold their head up and live their life as a productive member of society, instead of constantly worrying about an event, a mistake, a lapse in judgment constantly interfering with their lives. Obviously facts and circumstances are important, but I firmly believe there are a lot of people here in Iowa that shouldn’t suffer the constant reminder and punishment of a publicly accessible conviction at the few simple clicks of a mouse.” 

An option available for sentencing judges is to order a defendant receiving a suspended sentence or deferred judgment to reside at the Residential Corrections Facility and attend programs there. Wolf said not all defendants are appropriate for a prison recommendation but not all are appropriate for street probation due to a need for a more structured environment. The RCF can fill that gap.

“If it appears that an offender needs assistance with stable housing, finding and keeping employment and treatment, either substance abuse or mental health, the RCF is wonderful place for them to receive this assistance,” Wolf said. “The goal of the criminal justice system is equal parts rehabilitation and punishment. The RCF restricts an offender’s movements in the community, thereby protecting the community and providing a punishment, and tracks their compliance with probation requirements on a daily basis, assisting with the goal of rehabilitation. This type of placement is effective for those who may struggle to comply with probation outside of a residential facility.”

Wolf said the state prisons are full and if one defendant is ordered to serve a prison sentence, someone else is released. He said they need to use prison beds wisely and for individuals who pose the most danger to the community. He added many people who are sentenced to prison are released in a relatively short period of time, so rehabilitating defendants is important.

Wolf said the RCF should not be considered one step away from prison. Defendants may successfully complete the RCF’s programming and obtain work skills without prison. If not successful, a defendant faces the possibility of losing the deferred judgment or release and being sent to prison. 

“If the person is a good candidate for rehabilitation and does not pose an imminent danger to the community, the RCF is better equipped to provide the programming for the defendant,” Wolf said. “This is especially true if the defendant’s criminal behavior appears like it can be addressed by treatment, education and employment and the defendant appears to need additional structure to benefit from such.”

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