State, not county, pushing probation, according to Laehn
By ANDREW MCGINN
County Attorney Thomas Laehn is up front when he says he has nothing personal against Christopher Quirk, a 37-year-old Greene County man who’s been running afoul of the law for the better part of 15 years.
Quirk, who recently faced sentencing in district court for his sixth forgery conviction, has nevertheless become Laehn’s symbol for all that is wrong with the criminal justice system in Iowa.
“What is the purpose of having a law if a person can repeatedly violate that law with impunity?” Laehn asked. “Where’s the deterrent effect? There’s no incentive for the offender to change his ways if there’s no penalty.”
On Aug. 9, Laehn sat in the courtroom at the Greene County courthouse, once again steeling himself for Associate Judge Joseph McCarville to hand down probation to Quirk.
Instead, Laehn was admittedly surprised when McCarville sentenced Quirk to five years in prison.
But thanks to prison overcrowding, the victory was offset by a reality that Quirk’s stay in prison “will be measured in months, rather than years,” Laehn said.
The Presentence Investigation (PSI) report prepared by the 2nd Judicial District Department of Correctional Services — provided to judges to assist them in sentencing — had even recommended probation in Quirk’s case despite five prior convictions for the same crime, according to Laehn.
In fact, Laehn said, except in rare instances, the PSI recommendation in criminal cases is “virtually always” the same: probation.
Laehn, who won election as the county’s prosecutor last November, has been more vocal in his first seven months in office than his predecessor was in four decades about a judicial system that seemingly hamstrings every effort to seek justice.
At some point during his 42-year tenure as county attorney, Nic Martino resigned himself to the fact that he was powerless to fight a system that encourages probation at almost every turn, according to Laehn.
And Martino, as a result, paid a price in the court of public opinion.
Laehn is taking a vastly different approach.
“Sometimes,” he confessed, “I’m fighting fights that I’m predestined to lose.”
But he thinks it’s a fight worth having.
“Our criminal justice system in Iowa is broken,” said Laehn, who came to law as a second career after working as a college government professor.
Quirk’s recent case — in which the state’s PSI recommended probation for someone Laehn considers a habitual offender — is “illustrative” of the problem, he said.
With five previous convictions for forgery or unauthorized use of a credit card, Quirk started toward his sixth conviction in November 2018 when he stole checks from the glove compartment of a parked truck.
A Scranton resident at the time, Quirk cashed two forged checks — one for $715, the other for $690 — over two days last fall at Peoples Bank in Jefferson. Both times the bank teller took a photocopy of his driver’s license because he didn’t have an account at Peoples, according to court documents.
Quirk will have to pay $1,405 in restitution to Peoples Bank, McCarville ordered on Aug. 9.
But the judge visibly wrestled, according to Laehn, when sentencing Quirk to prison against the recommendation of the PSI.
“There’s a reality I constantly come up against,” Laehn said, explaining that judges are under pressure from the state, via the PSI, to give ample probation.
“The reality is that justice isn’t being done,” he added.
Quirk’s PSI noted that Iowa prisons are at 124 percent capacity, according to Laehn.
“That is projected to increase to 143 percent capacity by 2027,” he said. “Our prisons are already beyond what they were designed to accommodate.”
The PSI, in turn, “gives the judge political cover” to keep doling out probation, Laehn said.
“They’re dealing with the reality that they don’t have enough space,” he said.
The Presentence Investigation conducted by a probation/parole officer is supposed to collect comprehensive information, Laehn explained, including a defendant’s criminal record, prior substance abuse and psychological history.
In reality, he said, the PSI falls short.
“It’s based almost entirely on an interview with the defendant,” he said. “That’s really all they do.”
As a workaround, Laehn has started seeking jail time at the county level for defendants over prison time.
“A year in jail means a year in jail,” he said.
But even that tactic has limitations. A person can only remain in a county jail for 12 months.
There are no easy fixes to the criminal justice system in Iowa — only hard conversations.
The majority of crime in Greene County is “rooted in drugs,” Laehn said, either possession of drugs or burglaries and thefts that fund a drug habit.
“We need to evaluate, as a state, our prison system and our laws,” he said. “We need to have a serious conversation about the legalization of marijuana.”
As one of just 10 Libertarian officeholders in Iowa, Laehn personally believes that federal drug laws should be abolished. Drug laws should instead be decided on a state-by-state basis, he said, “consistent with the morality of the state.”
Until that decision is made in Iowa, he’s duty-bound to enforce the law.
But when asked if there would be more room in prisons and jails if marijuana was legalized in Iowa, Laehn doesn’t even have to think.
The answer is, unequivocally, yes.