Bomgaars v. State

Citation967 N.W.2d 41
Decision Date23 November 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-0375,20-0375
Parties Travis BOMGAARS, Kyle Cross, Anthony Gomez, James Hall, Raymond LaBelle, Shane Millett, and Kelly Sand, Appellants, v. STATE of Iowa, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Philip B. Mears (argued) of Mears Law Office, Iowa City, for appellants.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Nicholas E. Siefert (argued), Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

Mansfield, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Appel, Waterman, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed a concurrence. McDermott, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.


Several male inmates serving time for sex-related offenses are challenging what they believe to be a catch-22 in Iowa's prison system. To be considered meaningfully for parole, these inmates need to have completed the sex offender treatment program (SOTP). But because of limits on resources, this treatment has tended to be available only as the inmate nears his tentative discharge date. The inmates contend, among other things, that this circumstance violates their constitutional right to due process.

In considering this case, we emphasize that our job is not to approve or disapprove of how the State allocates resources in the prison system. We simply conclude that no constitutional violation has been established. The record shows that the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) has not postponed treatment in order to delay parole. The problem is simply one of numbers: there are more male sex offenders in Iowa's prison system than SOTP spots available. The DOC has been actively addressing the need for sex offender treatment by increasing the number of classes and counselors. The existing waiting list, which prioritizes admission to treatment based on tentative discharge date, is a reasonable way to decide when an offender gets admitted to treatment. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court denying the petitionersapplications for postconviction relief.

I. Facts and Procedural History.

A. The Petitioners. This case involves seven male offenders currently incarcerated for sex-related crimes at the Newton Correctional Facility (NCF). Their sentences range from ten years to forty years. None of the sentences carry mandatory minimums. At the time of the September 2019 hearing in this case, the offenders had served between eighteen months and nine years on their respective prison sentences. Their tentative discharge dates varied from April 25, 2022, to September 16, 2030.

These offenders score at "low" or "low-moderate" risk of reoffending. Most of them have completed significant programming in prison. None, however, have completed SOTP. For this reason, and in some cases for other reasons having to do with the seriousness of the underlying offenses and the length of time served, the DOC has not yet recommended any of the petitioners for parole.

At the time of hearing, all seven offenders were on the waiting list to receive "track one" SOTP. That waiting list had 419 individuals on it. The petitioners occupied positions 209 (Kyle Cross), 326 (Anthony Gomez), 341 (Raymond LaBelle), 368 (James Hall), 377 (Kelly Sand), 382 (Shane Millett), and 392 (Travis Bomgaars). While this case was on appeal, Cross was moved off the waiting list and began SOTP.1

B. How SOTP Is Scheduled. The DOC uses the "Good Lives" curriculum for male offenders who undergo SOTP. The program is administered on four separate tracks: track one for offenders with a low to low-moderate risk of reoffending, track two for offenders with an elevated risk of reoffending, track three for sex offenders with special needs, and track four for Spanish speakers. As noted, all the offenders involved in this case were on the waiting list for track one, which had 419 persons. As of September 2019, the other three waiting lists had 191, 126, and 27 persons respectively.

Except for a small program for inmates with special medical needs at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale, all SOTP for men takes place at NCF. Treatment takes approximately three to four months, with track two treatment lasting somewhat longer than track one. At the time of hearing in this case, there were potential slots for 175 individuals to undergo SOTP at NCF at any given time. However, in the correctional system as a whole, some 1,600 male inmates needed to complete SOTP. Thus, as an inmate in this group of 1,600 got closer to his tentative discharge date, he would typically be transferred to NCF and put on one of the waiting lists.

At the time of the hearing, nine counselors were conducting SOTP at NCF. Two more counselors were in training and two were expected to be hired to bring the total to thirteen. It was expected that these additional counselors would increase the capacity of the DOC to conduct SOTP classes. Yet once these additional counselors were on board, the existing physical limits of NCF would be reached. The plan was for the two newest counselors to work evenings to maximize utilization of the available classroom space at NCF.

Typically, about two-thirds of participants complete SOTP successfully. Those who are removed from the program go through an administrative hearing that results in a negative earned time adjustment and a new tentative discharge date. They then return to the waiting list. In fiscal year 2019, 264 persons successfully completed SOTP; the DOC anticipated that number would be higher in fiscal year 2020 because of the aforementioned increased staffing.

An offender's position on the waiting list is based on his tentative discharge date, with some adjustments. First, an offender without a special sentence of parole, such as an offender who was not technically convicted of a sex offense, receives a three-year advancement on the waiting list. Second, special arrangements have been made for offenders who had served twenty years or longer but had not received an opportunity for SOTP.

At the time of hearing, most track one offenders were starting SOTP at NCF about thirteen months before their tentative discharge date according to the petitioners’ brief. Once the two additional counselors were on board, the DOC anticipated that it would be able to schedule SOTP for track one offenders about eighteen months before tentative discharge date.2

C. Parole Review. The Iowa Board of Parole (the Board) completes about 13,000 parole reviews per year. The DOC makes recommendations regarding parole. The recommendations are not binding, and the Board has the discretion to grant or deny parole regardless of the DOC's recommendation. However, the Board has followed DOC recommendations as to whether an inmate needs SOTP before release. Therefore, when the DOC has recommended SOTP prior to release, the Board will not grant parole until that treatment has occurred. The Board does not order the DOC to provide treatment or interfere with DOC's scheduling of treatment.

The petitioners have received annual parole reviews. At each review so far, the DOC has not recommended release, and the Board has not granted release. In the most recent reviews, the Board has generally provided at least two reasons for not granting release: "DR7," a code for "seriousness of the crime and criminal history"; and "DR14," a code indicating that the inmate still needs to "[p]articipate in institutional programs," i.e., SOTP. For petitioner Cross, the Board identified DR14, but not DR7, as the reason for his continued incarceration.

D. This Litigation. Between May and July 2019, each of the petitioners filed for postconviction relief in Jasper County, where NCF is located. Each petition alleged that the State was wrongfully denying a liberty interest in parole. In particular, the petitions alleged that the DOC had created a "silent mandatory minimum sentence" by not making SOTP available until a male inmate was nearing his tentative discharge date, knowing full well that the Board would not consider an inmate for parole until treatment is complete. Some of the petitions also alleged unlawful sex discrimination between male and female sex offenders.

The State answered each petition without objecting to venue. On June 22, the district court entered an order consolidating the five cases that were then on file and appointing counsel for the petitioners. On July 1, the State moved to reconsider the order appointing counsel. The State argued that appointed counsel was not available under Iowa Code section 822.2(1)(e ), the provision under which the petitioners were asserting their claims. On July 23, the court set an evidentiary hearing on all seven petitioners’ claims for September 18 at NCF.

Approximately a month later, on August 23, the State moved for change of venue, arguing that Iowa Code section 822.2(1)(e ) claims had to be brought in the county where the defendant had been convicted or sentenced. The petitioners responded that objections to venue had been waived. In a September 9 ruling, the district court agreed with the petitioners and denied the motion.

A full-day evidentiary hearing took place on September 18. Each of the seven petitioners testified. In addition, testimony was received from Andrea Muelhaupt, the Board's parole liaison officer, and Sean Crawford, the DOC's associate warden of treatment in charge of SOTP.

On January 30, 2020, the district court entered a ruling denying relief. The court concluded as follows:

While 2019 was the first year the prison was able to graduate more inmates from SOTP than the number of new committed inmates required to participate in SOTP, at current and projected staffing levels, it will certainly not be the last. Assuming there are a total of 1,600 inmates now classified for SOTP and 260 new SOTP inmate admissions annually, and also assuming the prison is able to process 600 inmates through SOTP each year, the prison will be able to provide SOTP for every inmate now on

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  • State v. Hurlbut
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 11 Febrero 2022
    ...But when findings of fact are required that involve constitutional questions, our review is de novo. See, e.g. , Bomgaars v. State , 967 N.W.2d 41, 46 (Iowa 2021) ; Moon v. State , 911 N.W.2d 137, 142 (Iowa 2018) ; State v. Thompson , 836 N.W.2d 470, 476 (Iowa 2013). To the extent the major......
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