CLINTON — Iowa State Rep. Mary Wolfe said she reads a lot. The Clinton legislator happens also to work as a defense attorney, frequenting the Clinton County courthouse. She’s often involved in court-related stories that make it to print and circulate the town, albeit behind the scenes.
There’s a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that the public doesn’t see, Wolfe said Friday. That is why, during an informational justice system listening post at Vinnie’s Lounge, Wolfe joined county attorney Mike Wolf and Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln in trying to address some of the public’s concerns and address the question of whether or not local crime is being addressed appropriately.
“You don’t always get the whole story in a newspaper article,” said Wolfe, to an audience of around 40. “Often it can be very complicated some of these cases.”
There are a lot of legal terms that aren’t easy to define. Wolfe was speaking about “deferred judgments,” “misdemeanors,” “probations” and other components of sentencing. All of the terms groom perceptions, and Lincoln said after a candid 90-minute discussion that there are a lot of pieces the public never gets to see.
“I heard perceptions that there are not enough people getting punished enough,” Lincoln said. “I think any time we — especially elected officials here — can have a conversation with the citizens, that is democracy in action. We come in and think we’re doing a good job, and if the citizens aren’t pleased with that we want to know what it is they expect out of us.”
The meeting featured heavy input from citizens, who brought a wide spectrum of opinions and personal stories to the discussion. Among them was Arnold Meyerman, 72, who admitted he is concerned that punishments aren’t steep enough, encouraging repeat offenders.
“Whatever the penalty is for the choice they made, that should be enforced,” Meyermann said. “I see in our society... where far too many people aren’t held accountable.”
Meanwhile, among the crowd were people who admitted their direct dealings with the justice system. Shelly Haley, 48, said she had violations as a teenager, describing a difficult upbringing that made her feel there was nowhere to turn. She said she has worked through issues from her past, but she wants law enforcement to be aware of who she called the “real victims” — children are most susceptible to turning to crime.
“When I got out (of prison) I didn’t know how to survive out here,” Haley said. “I felt safe in prison where people treated me more like a human being, than I did out here where people treated me like a dog. I was 16 years old and exposed for selling drugs for (a relative).
“I’m out here to advocate for the kids. If you want to talk about victims, what about the ones who can’t say anything?”
Topics sparked civil debate about the ways to address issues and perceptions. Does law enforcement receive adequate funding? Is there legislation that can lead to better community safety?
There’s something else behind the scenes, according to Wolf. Statistics provided at the listening post indicated the state prison population is six times greater than it was in the 1970s. Yet, residents expressed their concerns that they feel less safe, despite the fact that more are being sent to prison.
Something that has dropped off, Wolf said, is mental health care. On cases he has tried, he often finds that repeat offenders are struggling with mental issues but never receive adequate treatment.
“For every person that we put into the prison system, another person is going to have to go out to make room for that person,” Wolf said. “It’s a resource issue. Unfortunately a good percentage of the people who are in our prison system have mental health issues and substance abuse issues.
“What we’ve done, in a way, is we’ve replaced the mental health system with the prison system to protect your safety.”
However, the goal of most involved in the criminal justice system — especially from the county attorney’s office — is to ensure safety and consideration for victims of crimes. Wolf said that’s a reason why certain plea agreements and plea deals are arranged, though not all of that information surfaces to public consumption.
The statistics show that Clinton County’s conviction profile is in line with state ratios. There’s always room for improvement, but perception, said elected officials, isn’t always the reality.
“I think the primary emphasis is that we look at the victims of crime,” Wolf said. “I think when we look at concerns or people’s desires for certain laws, the idea is public safety and how do we best address the victims of crime. More importantly, how do we prevent people from becoming victims of crime.”
Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.