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Juvenile justice bill essentially dead for session
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.
When the Iowa Supreme Court reviews a case that conflicts with the U.S. Constitution, they will strike the offending portions of Iowa law and allow the rest to stand. But, when they did this in the Bonilla case, the justices noted it created sentencing inconsistencies, and they specifically invited state lawmakers to construct a remedy.
… 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. He will therefore be eligible for a parole case review before an individual convicted of second degree kidnapping. When a portion of a statute is unconstitutional, we sever the offending portions from the enactment and leave the remainder intact. … We leave to the legislature whether and how to correct this apparent inconsistency.
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. That term, according to Theresa Wilson, chairwoman of the Iowa State Bar Association Criminal Law Section, was a compromise reached by varied interests present in the group.
“Obviously we are still discussing serious crimes,” Wilson told The Iowa Independent by phone Monday. “So, the consensus was that there should still be sufficient punishment for those crimes.”
The 25 year sentence was reached after looking at sentences given for lower felonies — for instance comparing what would happen to a juvenile convicted of first degree kidnapping with that of a juvenile convicted of second degree kidnapping, which carries a 25-year sentence and a mandate that 70 percent of the term, or 17.5 years, must be served before the individual can become eligible for a parole hearing.
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.
“If you are sentenced at 16 and the judge hands you a sentence that is 30 years, the earliest you could possibly be released on parole would be when you are 46 — although it is unlikely that the parole board would approve release during its first review,” said Horn. “If a judge sentences based on the maximum of 45 years that is in the House bill, that person would be 61 before he or she could appear before the parole board. I just don’t think that fits the court 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.
The piece “that often gets lost in the debate,” according to Wilson, “is that we have a parole board” and that being a granted a hearing before that board isn’t a guarantee of release.
The Iowa Parole Board isn’t a body that is known for it leniency. As Marty Ryan of the Justice Reform Consortium earlier told The Iowa Independent, “I would suspect that very few will ever make parole on their first, second, third … or tenth attempt.”
Corwin Ritchie, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, agrees and says his organization “trusts the parole board” and that is why they are willing to allow the apparent sentencing inconsistency to stand.
“These are serious crimes with victims that have to live with what happened to them for their entire lives. Those victims don’t get parole,” Ritchie said by phone Tuesday. “We originally went into the session advocating for the mandatory minimum to be 40 years. I think at some later point we were willing to go 35 years.
“Keep in mind that we may be talking about a person who is 17-and-a-half when we say juvenile. So if that same person committed this offense six months later, the sentence would be absolute — life without parole.”
Ritchie added that several of the state’s existing cases that have been impacted by Graham include not only Class A felonies that brought the life without parole sentence, but have second degree murder charges as well. Second degree murder in the state of Iowa is essentially a super Class B felony that carries a maximum sentence of 50 years and mandates that those convicted serve 70 percent of their term, or 35 years, before being offered the possibility of parole.
The Iowa County Attorneys Association, he said, isn’t willing to agree to a 15 year or even a 25 year mandatory minimum in these cases, even if the end result is that a juvenile is convicted, sentenced and found to be immediately eligible for a parole hearing.
“We’d rather come back and fight for what we want in the next session,” he said, noting that it would be much more difficult to encourage lawmakers to revisit the issue than it would be start the process again.
Horn says he’s ready to correct the inconsistency, but not with the new discretionary sentencing structure developed by House Republicans, and not by passing a mandatory minimum that he believes will only lead to more legal battles. It was those same issues that led Iowa Rep. Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton) to vote against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee.
“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.
“What we need to produce is a law that will hold up on appeal, [and not] this upper limit of 45 years, which I think is unconstitutional.”
House Majority Leader Kraig Paulsen (R-Hiawatha) told The Iowa Independent that his caucus isn’t willing to allow a sentencing guideline that could potentially provide Class A juvenile felons an opportunity to go before the parole board before Class B juvenile felons.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Paulsen said.