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Iowa Rep: Leaving Capitol without addressing juvenile offenders would be ‘unconscionable’
An Iowa Representative who was once at the heart of a push for stricter mandatory minimum sentences for some juvenile felony offenders is now pushing for compromise because he believes the existing situation is “unconscionable.”
“It isn’t what’s in my heart, but my head understands that we have to act,” Iowa Rep. Jeremy Taylor (R-Sioux City) told The Iowa Independent Thursday after reading our earlier report. “I can’t imagine standing with a victim or a victim’s family and telling them the alternative — that the person convicted of these Class A felonies would become immediately eligible for a parole hearing.”Although current Iowa law dictates a minimum sentence of life without the possibility for parole for anyone convicted of certain felonies like first degree kidnapping, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that not providing juveniles an opportunity for parole was cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, unconstitutional.
Unless the Legislature carves out specific sentencing guidelines for these offenders, Iowa sentencing judges will be forced to rely on a December 2010 Iowa Supreme Court decision based on the federal ruling. The Iowa Justices, after striking the provisions of state law that created the conflict, set the precedent of a life sentence combined with immediate parole eligibility and invited lawmakers to weigh in on the apparent inconsistencies that had emerged.
In the Iowa House, Taylor, a member of the Judiciary Committee, originally advocated for and won a new form of sentencing that would allow presiding judges to choose a mandatory minimum sentence between 30 and 45 years for such offenders. That plan was not received favorably by Iowa Sen. Wally Horn (D-Cedar Rapids), who leads the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, and the bill has essentially died for this session.
Taylor and members of the House, while working on a youthful offender bill, again attempted to address these juvenile offenders.
“I know it sounds sort of cliche, but it is true: You can’t always get what you want. But I think you can still try to do the best thing possible,” Taylor said.
Taylor, perhaps the most fierce advocate for adopting stricter mandatory minimums than the 25 years originally recommended by the Iowa State Bar Association’s Criminal Law Section, began a push for a 25 year mandatory minimum. The youthful offender bill was amended by the House, and sent back to the Senate on April 13, where it has languished.
“It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, and it wasn’t exactly what other lawmakers wanted, but it appeared to be a figure that a majority could agree upon,” he said. “I think, if it were brought up for a vote of the full Senate or sent to a conference committee, it would gain approval.”One of the problems facing the bill, as amended, is that Horn has adamantly opposed any mandatory minimum sentence for these juvenile offenders above the 15-year mark. Going beyond that, he believes, will not match the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which indicated that while states did not have to guarantee eventual release from prison, they needed to provide the offenders “some realistic opportunity for release” and an opportunity “to demonstrate growth and maturity.” The Supreme Court did not, however, provide any guidance or recommendations to state legislatures as to what the new sentences should be.
But beyond the disagreements over mandatory minimums, there is another bone of contention for some lawmakers including Taylor.
“I and others believe that the Graham decision is being misapplied to juvenile cases where there is a murder attached,” Taylor said. “We want to specifically write our law so that when any new cases arrive that include a homicide, those cases will not come under the jurisdiction of Graham and those convicted of the crimes will never have an opportunity for parole.”
The disagreement relates directly to another Iowa criminal case, Jason Means, which was the first case in the nation to follow the federal Graham ruling and paved the way for previous juveniles convicted of such crimes to have their sentences revisited. Represented by Davenport attorney Angela Fritz Reyes, Means brought a motion of illegal sentencing before
U.S. Iowa District Court in Scott County just days following the SCOTUS decision. Judge Gary D. McKenrick ultimately ruled that the case was a new rule of substantive law that should be applied to previous cases and struck the portion of Means’ sentence that prohibited an opportunity for parole.
In 1994, when Means was 17, he was found guilty of first degree kidnapping, first degree robbery, second degree murder, criminal gang participation, conspiracy to commit robbery and unauthorized possession of an offensive weapon. The first degree kidnapping charge, a non-homicide offense, brought the penalty of life without parole. Means and his attorneys continue to seek a parole hearing.
Taylor believes that instead of the court looking at one specific conviction, the court should look at the totality of the case against a juvenile to determine if Graham should be applied.
“If there is a homicide conviction involved, even if that conviction is not the one that led to the life without parole sentence, I believe it should prevent the application of Graham in those cases,” Taylor said, noting that he believes Means should stay behind bars for the remainder of his life.
Although changes made by the Legislature could not be retroactively applied to Means and the handful of other similar cases already before the court, lawmakers could prohibit any future similar cases from having Graham applied. It remains unclear, however, if such legislation would withstand the court’s scrutiny.