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Branstad criminal justice

Gov. Terry Branstad signs into law a series of criminal justice reforms during a ceremony Thursday at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.

Erin Murphy/TIMES BUREAU

DES MOINES — It is too late to help ease Jeri King’s heartbreak, but she hopes a bill signed into law Thursday will prevent other families from enduring similar anguish.

Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday signed into law a criminal justice reform package that provides more leniency in sentencing for some crimes and stiffens penalties for another.

The bill requires individuals convicted of child endangerment resulting in death to serve at least 15 years of the 50-year sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

King’s granddaughter, Kamryn Schlitter, died in 2010 at 17 months old as a result of severe head injuries caused by a shaking or slamming. Kamryn’s father, Zyriah Schlitter, and his girlfriend at the time, Amy Parmer, were convicted of child endangerment resulting in death.

Because the crime had no mandatory minimum sentence, King said the family was dealing with parole hearings before the appeals process was finished.

“It just feels like a fight that never ends,” King said. “This really will help the healing process so that we can fight the appeal process and begin the healing process.”

In addition to the new mandatory minimum sentence for child endangerment causing death, the new law creates softer penalties for a pair of non-violent crimes.

The new law makes certain non-violent drug offenders eligible for parole after serving half the mandatory minimum sentence, giving more discretion to the parole board; and it creates a new, third class of robbery, which would make non-violent robbery attempts an aggravated misdemeanor instead of a felony, allowing for lesser penalties in robberies that do not threaten or cause injury.

Branstad said he believes the package represents “reasonable and balanced reforms.”

“This is an important step that can help in reducing our prison population while keeping our communities safe,” Branstad said.

The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums praised the new law as “a first step.”

“It puts Iowa well on its way to a smarter and more effective criminal justice system,” Greg Newburn, the group’s policy director, said in a statement. “Gov. Branstad’s commitment to flexible sentencing will save money, but more importantly it will keep the public safe.”

Rep. Dave Dawson, D-Sioux City, called the new law “a great accomplishment” that he expects will reduce the disproportionate number of minorities serving in the state’s jails and prisons.

In 2015, blacks accounted for 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population but 35.8 percent of the federal prison population in the state and 25.5 percent of the state prison population, according to the state’s non-partisan research agency.

Dawson and Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids, guided the legislation through the Iowa House. Both said they believe state lawmakers should continue to examine mandatory minimum sentences for other crimes.

“I think this definitely opens up a conversation. I think when we’re talking about minimum sentences, we need to make sure that the penalty fits the crime,” Rizer said. “What’s unique in this bill is that we actually allow the judge to have some discretion on mandatory minimums in order to better match the penalty to the crime. And I think that is a new and a revolutionary model for the state of Iowa, and we might want to look at some of the other mandatory minimums in that same light.”

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