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May 27, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court decides any and every "sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile offender violates article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution"

As noted in prior posts here and here, yesterday brought notable post-Miller juve sentencing decisions from state supreme courts in California and Florida. But today the Iowa Supreme Court has one-upped its colleagues via its post-Miller ruling in Iowa v. Sweet, No. 14–0455 (Iowa May 27, 2016) (available here).  The lengthy majority opinon in Sweet wraps up this way:

In sum, we conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision. The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available. See Seats, 865 N.W.2d at 557 (“Even if the judge sentences the juvenile to life in prison with parole, it does not mean the parole board will release the juvenile from prison.”); see also State v. Andrews, 329 S.W.3d 369, 379 (Mo. 2010) (Wolff, J., dissenting) (noting an offender sentenced to life with parole may nonetheless “spend the rest of his life in prison if the parole board does not determine that he is suitable for parole release”).  Steinberg has poignantly made this very point:

It’s not only adolescents’ immature judgment that demands that we treat them differently when they break the law.  If the plasticity of the adolescent brain makes juveniles more amenable to rehabilitation, this argues against mandatory life sentences that don’t allow courts to consider whether an impulsive or impressionable teenager might grow into a law-abiding adult who can control his impulses and stand up to peer pressure.  Of course, a teenager who kills another person deliberately should be punished — no one is arguing otherwise.  But should he be incarcerated for the rest of his life, with no chance to prove that he has matured?

Steinberg at 188. Thus, juvenile offenders’ prospects for rehabilitation augur forcefully against speculative, up-front determinations of opportunities for parole and leads inexorably to the categorical elimination of life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

For the above reasons, we adopt a categorical rule that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. As a result, the sentence of the district court in this case is vacated and the matter remanded to the district court for resentencing.

Nothing in this opinion, of course, suggests that a juvenile offender is entitled to parole.  The State is not required to make such a guarantee, and those who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.  The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress.

A lengthy dissent authored by Justice Mansfield gets started this way:

Recognizing that our legislature and our trial courts have the primary role in determining criminal sentences, I would affirm the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for this seventeen year old who murdered his grandparents who had raised him.

Today, the court breaks new ground in finding that the Iowa Constitution categorically forbids such sentences.  As I will explain below, I believe the justification offered by the majority for its ruling is insufficient.  More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.

May 27, 2016 at 12:49 PM | Permalink

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