Corrections officials concerned with release decisions from Iowa Board of Parole

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 9:36 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Emails our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received show officials, who oversee parole in the state of Iowa, are concerned about decisions from the Iowa Board of Parole.

One of the decisions includes a man paroled around 10 times, who is now accused of kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl named Breasia Terrell. Records, which our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received, show a former board chair continued to push other board members to lower Iowa’s prison population and worked with officials within the Department of Corrections to release more inmates from overcrowded prisons.

The Department of Corrections, the Board of Parole and the Governor’s Office, which oversees both agencies, all declined on-camera interviews. However, the Chair for the Iowa Board of Parole Nick Davis said the board makes the best decisions it can with the information available to it in a written statement.

We are always devastated to learn when someone who has been released commits a horrific offense,” Davis said. “...We very much regret that there will be cases that are misjudged, and we are constantly working to improve our processes and procedures.”

This is our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team’s third story in our Investigative Series called “Released Too Soon”. You can read our first story about a sex offender released from prison by mistake and our second story about documents claiming the Board of Parole made some decisions illegally.

Corrections officials concerned with release decisions from Iowa Board of Parole
Corrections officials concerned with release decisions from Iowa Board of Parole(Ethan Stein)

Lauren Stangl, who went to Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, said she vividly remembers her senior year. She said she participated in show choir and enjoyed her time like any other high school student until her phone was stolen at gunpoint in January 2020.

According to court documents, surveillance video showed Jovon Ellis Jr. pushing Stangl into her vehicle. He then placed a handgun into her side and demanded her cell phone.

Stangl said she still remembers Ellis telling her to “have a bad day” when he ran away. She said the robbery created mental health challenges for her, which required therapy, and panic attacks.

“I became and still kinda am, like, kinda obsessed with the doors being locked when it gets dark outside,” Stangl said. “Like I know they’re locked, but I need to see them locked for me to feel, basically, the most safe.”

According to court documents, Ellis was on pre-trial release when for a similar robbery that occurred four months before he robbed Stangl. Police said he pointed a gun at three people and then took their phones, cash and a purse. About four months before the initial robbery, court documents show Ellis was charged with assaulting another man at the Ground Transportation Center in Cedar Rapids.

A district court judge sentenced Ellis to 15 years after he pled guilty in exchange for being charged with lesser crimes. According to court records, Ellis lost two appeals to lower the sentence from a judge. However, the Iowa Board of Parole released the 20-year-old man on a type of parole called work release, which went into effect in May 2022.

Coralville Police arrested Ellis in November 2022 after they said he pointed a gun at the victims through his jogging pants, which was later identified as a BB gun, and admitted to stealing two people’s phones. He is awaiting trial on those charges and was recalled for Parole

Concerns from Community-Based Corrections

Emails the i9 Investigative Team received show Directors from Community-Based Corrections, which oversee parole, are concerned dangerous people are leaving prison too early like in the Ellis case.

Kip Shanks, who is the director for the 4th Judicial District based in Council Bluffs and covers Southwest Iowa, expressed his frustration to fellow directors in an email after the board of parole tried to parle a person to the victim’s house after he tried to burn it down.

“I really don’t understand the thought process anymore,” Shanks said. “It appears that nobody needs to remain incarcerated anymore.”

Bruce Vander Sanden, who is the director for the 6th Judicial District based in Cedar Rapids and covers central eastern Iowa, said he was concerned after the Iowa Board of Parole tried to release a shooter at the pedestrian mall in Iowa City.

“Luckily, we caught it before he was released but the amount of pushback (including the Johnson Co. Attorney) it took them to really understand they could not release him...very concerning for public safety,” Vander Sanden said.

Waylyn McCulloh, who is the director for the 7th Judicial District based in Davenport and covering eastern Iowa, said in an email to other directors he “questioned the release” of a habitual OWI offender. He said the offender was paroled weeks into a five-year sentence and then kidnapped and killed a young girl.

That man was Henry Dinkins, who is now accused of kidnapping and murdering a 10-year-old girl named Breasia Terrell. Dinkins, who is a registered sex offender, received parole about 10 separate times based on information from the Iowa Board of Parole. Three months after his parole was effective, police said he kidnapped and killed Terrell.

Terrell’s family spent more than eight months looking for the 10-year-old’s body.

Parole Decisons are Subjective

According to Iowa Law, the Iowa Board of Parole reviews thousands of cases because most inmates are eligible for parole at least once a year. State law gives the board the ability to release people when it’s the board’s opinion there is a “reasonable probability” that the person can be released without detriment to the community or the person.

The board can’t release those with a life sentence or inmates still serving a mandatory minimum, which means board members make judgment calls on each inmate with the information provided by the Department of Corrections. Those pieces of information include criminal history, disciplinary history, risk assessment score and a recommendation from the Department of Corrections.

Overall, Iowa law asks members to use around 15 holistic factors when making decisions. Those also include the nature of the offense, recidivism record, length of time serves, convictions or behavior, past performance on parole or work release, history of drug use, risk assessments, participation in institutional programs and habitual misconduct and psychiatric evaluations.

One factor, which isn’t listed in the law, is decreasing Iowa’s prison population. According to the Department of Corrections, Iowa’s prisons are overcrowded by about 13%.

Minutes, which our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team received from a public records request, show former board chair Andrew Boettger consistently pushed board members to reduce the prison capacity each month by .5% to 0% over a two a year period. He announced these goals in August 2021.

“We cannot let distractions get in our way of staying on target,” he said in October 2021.

According to the minutes, Boetteger said he met with the leadership in the Department of Corrections to release more inmates and would review cases over holiday breaks as “second looks” then bring them to the board for an additional review and worked to find more time for board members to review cases.

“We will continue to try to think outside the box to get to our release goal,” he said in December 2021.

Davis was appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds to become board chair in May 2022, according to his biography on the Iowa Parole Board’s website.

Stuti Kokkalera, who studies Parole Boards across the country at Sam Houston State University, said the decisions made by most parole boards are subjective. She also said the lack of requirements along with holistic reviews can create arbitrary decisions.

“You know the parole board is comprised of individuals and so individuals can make decisions that you know we don’t necessarily agree with or we don’t necessarily know how to control,” Kokkaera said. “We see similar concerns, for instance, with judicial discretion, and so those same concerns tend to replicate even with Parole Board decision-making.

She said parole boards still need subjectivity for extreme cases and to help people, who are reformed, to leave prison. However, she said transparency is needed to help ensure the public those being released are safe for the community.

According to Iowa Code, an inmate’s risk evaluation score is a public record. Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team asked for a copy of those scores and was denied because the department claimed it was exempt under a separate law regarding department evaluations.

A new law will change how the board of parole operates moving forward along with other changes to agencies across state government. Those include making every board member full-time beginning July 1st.

Davis said in an email he believes the changes to his agency will stop cases where an inmate released commits a horrific offense.