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Bill changes Iowa’s sentencing laws for some juvenile felons
Some juvenile offenders who were convicted of felonies and sentenced to life without parole would be eligible for release hearings after serving 25 years if a study bill now before the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee becomes law.
The proposed legislation, reproduced in full below, comes in response to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Graham v. Florida. The high court ruled that sentencing juveniles who did not commit murder to terms of life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was a violation of Eighth Amendment rights.
The decision has sparked appellate cases throughout the nation, and posed a significant problem in Iowa because current sentencing law does not provide minimum prison terms used to establish a timeline for parole. Absent such mandatory minimum sentences, state judges have set aside state laws that conflict with the federal ruling and found at least one such offender to be immediately eligible for release review.
In December 2010, the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed the case of Julio Bonilla, convicted of first degree kidnapping, and mandated that his life without parole sentence be vacated and that a sentence of life with the possibility of parole be applied. In doing so, however, the court noted the conflict between federal and state laws:
“[State law] prohibits parole review until inmates have served the mandatory minimum sentence for their crime as established by statute. Because kidnapping in the first degree carries a life sentence without parole, there is no mandatory minimum sentence established by statute. … We leave it to the legislature whether and how to correct this apparent inconsistency.”
Without such statutory guidelines in place, the court struck the unconstitutional provisions that prevented Bonilla from ever receiving parole consideration, and pronounced him immediately eligible for a release hearing. As noted in the ruling, the method used by the court — established by an earlier legal precedent — actually resulted in Bonilla potentially serving less time than an individual convicted of second degree kidnapping, which carries as 25-year sentence and mandatory minimum of 17-and-a-half years before parole review becomes available.
“When a portion of a statute is unconstitutional, we sever the offending portions from the enactment and leave the remainder intact.”
The study bill now before Iowa lawmakers sets a mandatory minimum of sentence of 25-years for offenders who commit class A felonies (excluding homicide) while under the age of 18. Using that guideline, Bonilla, who was convicted in 2005, wouldn’t become eligible for a parole hearing until roughly 2030.
State Sens. Wally Horn (D-Cedar Rapids), Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque) and Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) are sponsors of the study bill, which was introduced Wednesday. Currently there does not appear to be a companion bill introduced in the Iowa House.
It has been estimated that there are seven Iowa cases similar to Bonilla’s that will be appealed. Many have already begun to weave their way through the court system.