Compassionate Release Advocacy


Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system have some form of early release for incarcerated people when circumstances emerge that make continued imprisonment unjustifiable. Only Iowa has none! These programs are commonly called “Compassionate Release.”

What is Compassionate Release?

Usually, compassionate release programs provide for early release of terminally ill, elderly, very sick, or incapacitated people. Relief takes different forms depending on the jurisdiction, from temporary furloughs, to parole, to the reduction of the sentence to time served.

“There comes a point in a person’s sentence where they are so sick that incarceration loses any meaning or worse, becomes torture,” said Mary Price, author of the report Everywhere and Nowhere Compassionate Release in the States published by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

In this report, FAMM evaluated all of the state’s compassionate release programs, and Iowa came in at the very bottom, receiving an ‘F’ score because it remains the only state without any form of early release for sick and elderly individuals. The Iowa Board of Parole says it “does not grant paroles due to medical reasons or for family hardship circumstances” (Iowa Public Radio).

This is contrary to what the general public wants. FAMM also released a new national poll that found 70% of Americans, across political lines, support Compassionate Release programs. The President of FAMM, Kevin Ring, asks “at a time of concern about rising rates of crime, why are so many states wasting their limited resources to incarcerate sick and elderly people?”

Beyond wasting resources, compassionate release is important for moral and ethical reasons. Professor Alison Guernsey, who directs the University of Iowa’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, said to Iowa Public Radio that it is disappointing there is no compassionate release program here because it reflects poorly on Iowa’s criminal legal system. She said “mercy and second chances are really important philosophical things for us to embed in our judicial and legal systems. And so it seems quite behind the times not to have a mechanism for just the mercy purposes.”

From multiple standpoints—public safety, saving taxpayer money, public opinion, and concern for the health and wellbeing of incarcerated individuals— compassionate release seems like a policy that should be implemented in Iowa. It is the bare minimum we can offer to incarcerated individuals from our community who are sick and elderly.

If you are one of the 70% of Americans who support early release for sick and elderly incarcerated individuals, please write to our legislators and urge them to enact compassionate release in Iowa. These are the legislators on the Judiciary Committee:

Senate Judiciary Committee:

House of Representatives Judiciary Committee:

If you are not a resident of Iowa City, use this link to find your legislature.

Below is a template for your email. Edit it and add personal touches as you wish:

Dear Senator/ Representative _______________,

As a member of your community/ as your constituent, I am writing to urge you to enact a compassionate release law in Iowa.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have some form of early release for incarcerated people when circumstances emerge that make continued imprisonment unjustifiable, called ‘compassionate release.’ Iowa is the only state in the country with no compassionate release laws at all. Iowa is behind, and simply put, needs to catch up.

As a result of lengthy, ineffective sentencing laws, Iowa currently incarcerates too many people who are elderly, severely ill, or both. The elderly and extremely ill are not a public safety threat and have very low rates of reoffending. But their incarceration is extremely costly. The continued incarceration of these vulnerable individuals is cruel, expensive, and deeply ineffective.

70% of Americans, across political lines, support compassionate release programs. A majority of our state wants there to be a mechanism for the safe release of sick and elderly people in prison. Many elderly or ill people can be returned home safely to live out their remaining days with dignity, surrounded by family. I urge you to enact a compassionate release measure in Iowa to allow sick and elderly individuals the chance to live out the rest of their lives in the community. So please safely release these vulnerable people and stop wasting taxpayer dollars on ineffective incarceration.

Thank you for considering my views.