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March 11, 2011

Iowa debating how to respond legislatively to SCOTUS Graham ruling

The second piece from a two-part series in the Iowa Independent about Iowa's response to the Supreme Court's Graham ruling is available here (the first piece is linked here).  This piece is headlined "Bill seeks to conform Iowa law with SCOTUS juvenile offenders ruling; Judges could decide how long juveniles would be required to serve before being eligible for parole," and here are excerpts:

A bill that seeks to conform state code with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the sentencing of juveniles convicted in some felonies was introduced to the full Iowa House Wednesday. If approved, however, Iowa judges would be allowed to exercise unprecedented discretion in setting such sentences.

House File 607 has undergone changes since it was first introduced to the Judiciary Committee in late January, but its primary goal of creating new sentencing guidelines to juveniles convicted of certain class A felonies has remained the same.  In May 2010 Graham v. Floridadecision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentences of life without parole could not be given to juvenile offenders on nonhomicide offenses.  Doing so, according to the court, constituted cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the 8th Amendment.

Within days of the ruling, and long before the Iowa legislature could modify state law to conform to the ruling, individuals convicted under such circumstances filed court motions to revisit their sentences.  An estimated eight people are serving time in Iowa prisons who were convicted as juveniles to life without parole in connection with non-homicide offenses, the most common being first degree kidnapping....

The bill, which was amended and passed just before the first legislative funnel deadline last week, would allow a sentencing judge to determine the minimum number of years that must be served before a person convicted as a juvenile could be eligible for a parole hearing.  Although the bill provides a range — between 30 and 45 years — the very idea that a judge in Iowa could utilize discretion in determining a mandatory minimum is, at the very least, unusual.  Judges in the state do not currently hold such discretionary power....

A key point within the Graham decision was that juveniles, even those convicted of horrible offenses, should be given “a meaningful opportunity” to show maturity and growth.... The proposed Iowa fix is [potentially] problematic because it requires a judge to make a determination at the time a juvenile is sentenced as to length of sentence, a concept that appears to be contradiction to Graham’s focus on the ability for a juvenile offender to change over time and be rehabilitated.

Identical study bills were originally filed in both the Iowa House and Senate that would have set a mandatory minimum of 25 years for these juvenile offenders.  Although the 25-year mark was believed to be a consensus of several groups that studied the issue, including the Criminal Law Section of the Iowa State Bar Association, lawmakers didn’t go along with the plan.  Democrats in each chamber proposed alternatives to lower the minimum to 15 years.  Republican-sponsored amendments, which were encouraged by the Iowa County Attorney Association, pushed for increased minimums up to 45 years. Between the two chambers, amendments and separate bills on the same issue were proposed that considered nearly every level between the two extremes....

“There is definitely going to some difficulty finding consensus on that issue,” said Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids). “I also think there is a belief that if the legislature doesn’t act, the decision will ultimately be made the courts.”

March 11, 2011 at 01:37 AM | Permalink


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To give a judge that much authority frightens me, to be honest. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: minnesota criminal lawyer | Mar 11, 2011 11:59:20 AM

Is that how it works, the Supreme Court excludes as unconstitutional hopeless sentences for non-homicidal juveniles so the legislature immediately gets to work seeking ways to weasel around the ruling?

Posted by: John K | Mar 12, 2011 8:26:08 AM

pretty much john!

think we have 3 or 4 states right now in the process of trying to rewrite their state constitutions so they can apply laws covering sex offenders their own state supreme court's have ruled are ILLEGAL under those constitutions!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 12, 2011 12:08:54 PM

John, I am working on some post-Graham litigation and thus am following developments in numerous states, and to answer your question: Yes, unfortunately, that is exactly how it works.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 14, 2011 10:53:48 AM

I'm an IA House rep (and attorney) & tomorrow we debate/vote on HF 607, and it sure would be nice if we could approach it from an attitude of "hey, let's try and agree on something that's consistent with both the letter and the spirit of Graham" instead of "hey, let's try and guess the maximum mandatory minimum we can get away with, and then tack on a few years, just for the hell of it." Of course, the first option would require that all of us (or at least several of us) be somewhat familiar with Graham.

Posted by: MLW | Mar 27, 2011 8:30:43 PM

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