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Bill seeks to conform Iowa law with SCOTUS juvenile offenders ruling
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. Florida decision, 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. One such inmate is Jason Means, 34, who continues to battle with the court for a parole hearing as mandated by Graham.
Although it is doubtful that the proposal currently in the statehouse will impact cases such as Means’, any changes made by the legislature will definitely impact future sentencings. For that reason alone, lawmakers need to be focused on producing a clean bill that isn’t likely to face additional court challenges, said state Rep. Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton).
“The bill that eventually was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, which I voted against, contains a wacky, new idea in sentencing. In the other sentencing laws in Iowa, there isn’t discretionary sentencing in relation to a mandatory minimum on the part of the judge,” said Wolfe, an attorney who is also concerned that the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the bill represent the spirit of the SCOTUS decision.
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. If a person is convicted of second degree murder, for instance, the law dictates that the individual must serve 70 percent of his or her sentence before a parole hearing can be scheduled.
“What we need to produce is a law that will hold up on appeal,” Wolfe said. “This amendment creates two problems. One, is this sort of new and never-before seen sentencing structure. And, second, is this upper limit of 45 years, which I think is unconstitutional.”
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. Both Wolfe and Marty Ryan of the Justice Reform Consortium question if a mandatory 45 year minimum sentence qualifies as such an opportunity.
“I think some are upset about this ruling because they think it means these individuals are going to automatically be released, or released after only a few years,” Wolfe said. “But the way our parole boards are hanging on to inmates, the idea that having a chance to go before a parole board somehow means that he or she is going to automatically get out is just so not what’s going to happen.”
Ryan added, “I would suspect that very few will ever make parole on their first, second, third … or tenth attempt.”
Anyone under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile. So, a person convicted of this type of felony at age 17, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 45 years, would be 62 years old before becoming eligible for a parole hearing. The proposed Iowa fix is also problematic because it requires a judge to make a determination a 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.
“[Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy pointed out in Graham that part of the purpose of having a meaningful opportunity of release is to allow a fully rehabilitated and remorseful defendant a crack at a new life using some useful job skills learned while in prison,” Ryan said. “It’s my contention that if a person is released from prison, and has never before been in the workforce, as many of these defendants would be, what sense would it make to re-enter society when you’re going to experience age discrimination first hand.”
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.
“Personally, I would have voted for the 15-year bill,” Wolfe said. “But I was also prepared to agree with the 25-year bill as a compromise.”
If the Iowa House ultimately passes the Judiciary Committee’s bill, it is unlikely that the existing language would survive the Senate. Democrats in that chamber don’t seem willing to go above the original 25-year mandatory minimum.
“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.”
And while it is true that the courts will move forward in absence of new legislation addressing the issue, the end result could be far shorter sentences for these juvenile offenders. The first case to come before the Iowa Supreme Court was Julio Bonilla, who was convicted of first degree kidnapping in 2005 at the age of 16. Since the court had no clear sentencing law at its disposal, it merely struck down the portion of the existing sentence that had been determined to be unconstitutional under Graham.
“By striking the unconstitutional statutory provisions which prevent Bonilla from ever receiving consideration for parole, Bonilla will become eligible for an annual case review immediately,” the court wrote. “He will therefore be eligible for parole case review before an individual convicted of second degree kidnapping.”
The Iowa Supreme Court indicated that the legislature should determine “whether and how to correct this apparent inconsistency.”
But, if lawmakers pass a bill where the minimum is too high to be considered “a meaningful opportunity” that is later found to be unconstitutional, the courts might then also need to correct sentences on any individuals who were subject to the law before it was overturned. Wolfe said the mandatory minimum range, while an interesting concept, could pave the way to allowing judges more sentencing discretion — something that Democrats have historically considered exploring and Republicans have not.
“If the bill passed by our committee becomes law, then I think that five years from now, some Attorney General is going to have to call the victims in the three or four cases that have been resolved under the bill, while it was going through its own review, and let those victims know that the law was struck down as unconstitutional,” Wolfe said. “Someone will have to tell the victims that although they were told they wouldn’t have to worry about a parole hearing for 30, 35, 40 or 45 years, that the person convicted of the crime is going to have a parole hearing next year.”
This is part two of a series on the impact of the Supreme Court’s Graham v. Florida ruling in Iowa. Part one is available here.