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April 26, 2011

Iowa legislature unable to respond effectively to SCOTUS ruling in Graham

This lengthy new piece appearing in the Iowa Independent spotlights the difficulties that the Hawkeye state is having in trying to craft an appropriate legislative response to the Supreme Court's ruling last year in Graham. The piece's headline and subhead tells the basic story: "Juvenile justice bill essentially dead for session; Without legislative guidance some new juvenile felony offenders will receive life, but be immediately eligible for parole." Here are some of the interesting details of a piece that is worth reading in full:

Iowa lawmakers have been unable to find compromise on new sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of certain non-homicide felonies.  It’s a situation that will likely result in any new juveniles convicted of such crimes becoming immediately eligible for parole.

While Republicans would like to see hefty mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for such offenders and are willing to offer Iowa judges unprecedented discretionary latitude in such sentencings, Democrats want to make sure new sentencing guidelines match the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandated the changes.

In 2010, shortly after the Iowa Legislature ended its session, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile, convicted on a non-homicide offense, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Since Iowa law mandates such sentences for a few non-homicide offenses, the state has been grappling with compliance of the federal mandate.

Since the legislature had ended its session, the Iowa Supreme Court was the first state institution to offer a pathway to compliance.  In a December 2010 opinion justices called upon the Graham decision when they reduced the sentence of Julio Bonilla, who was convicted of first degree kidnapping in 2005 when he was 16.  Instead of serving life in prison without parole, Bonilla will now have the opportunity to appear before the parole board and the the possibility of release....

House File 607 was approved 81-to-17 by the Iowa House on March 28 and, upon reaching the Iowa Senate, was sent to the Judiciary Committee.  As approved by the House, juveniles convicted of class A felonies would become eligible for parole after a prison term of between 30 and 45 years — the exact mandatory minimum sentence between those two figures would be imposed at the time of sentencing by the presiding judge.

The bill was originally crafted by a diverse task force comprised of prosecutors, defense attorneys, citizen advocates, members of law enforcement and representatives from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, and called for a mandatory minimum term of incarceration of 25 years....  Yet when the bill arrived at the Iowa House, Republicans, encouraged by the Iowa County Attorneys Association, wanted much stiffer mandatory minimums. Democrats countered that the sentences being suggested by Republicans did not follow the spirit of Graham, which indicated that while states did not have to guarantee eventual release from prison, the states did need to provide these juvenile offenders “some realistic opportunity for release” and an opportunity “to demonstrate growth and maturity.”

Iowa Sen. Wally Horn (D-Cedar Rapids), who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Iowa Independent that he didn’t feel anything above a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence met with the spirit of what the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its decision....  Horn feels so strongly about having a 15-year mandatory sentence that he has also essentially killed off a youthful offender bill that had the original 25-year mandatory minimum attached.

But without new legislative guidelines, Iowa judges imposing sentences on juveniles convicted on non-homicide Class A felonies will have no other legal choice at their disposal than to duplicate the same application as the Iowa Supreme Court.  So, instead of the minimum 15-year sentences advocated by Horn, juveniles newly convicted of these crimes will have no mandatory minimum sentence at all. They will immediately become eligible for annual parole board reviews — the first one taking place as soon as one year following their incarceration.

April 26, 2011 at 06:11 PM | Permalink


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The idea that a mandatory minimum of not more than 15 years is needed to insure compliance with "the spirit" -- or for that matter the letter -- of Graham is preposterous on its face.

A 17 year-old who serves 15 years is 32. One hardly need to be back on the street at 32 to have "some realistic opportunity for release."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 26, 2011 8:26:50 PM

a "chance" of parole at 32 is not really that much to ask for since in practice it can very well be a pretty slim one.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 27, 2011 9:54:59 AM

Joe --

Whether it's "not really that much to ask for" isn't the question. The question is whether either the holding or "spirit" of Graham requires the opportunity for release in one's early thirties, and the answer by any stretch is no.

If, at the Supreme Court, Graham's counsel had maintained any such thing, he would have lost Justice Kennedy and, with him, the case.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 27, 2011 12:34:07 PM

I don't think that there is much concern in the Iowa legislature about this bill because the Iowa parole board is not very likely to parole someone sentenced to life with parole as an option. If the BOP won't parole them the minimum eligibility time for parole is irrelevant.

I think that one of the reasons Iowa has a lower than average recidivism rate is because the parole board has done a good job of risk assessment. My main concern is that the BOP has too large a case load and three new members that are not yet up to speed.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 30, 2011 10:55:23 PM

@John---African Americans make up 24% of Iowa's prison population and only 2.5% of Iowa's state population. Lower than average recidivism rate???? Back up ----- Iowa leads all other 49 states in the incarceration of African Americans. Before you can even deal with those numbers and percentages there needs to be CONSTITUTIONAL REVIEW of alleged offenders, law enforcement actions, prosecutors actions, judges rulings. Only then can we begin to truly assess at a legislative level to form appropriate law and sentencing. Turn the negative into a positive than can ultimately lead to a better society and respect for our fellow countrymen and women especially juvenile

Posted by: Cal | Jun 3, 2011 10:41:15 AM

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