A bill that passed the Iowa House last night would bring state law into compliance with Supreme Court rulings on parole for prisoners who committed their crimes when they were juveniles. Teens may still be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murder, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled life-time prison sentences for teenagers convicted of other “Class A” felonies like rape or kidnapping are unconstitutional.
It’s now up to Iowa legislators to decide how long those teens should spend in prison before being paroled. Representative Julian Garrett, a Republican from Indianola, says the House bill would let judges sentence teens convicted of rape, kidnapping, or serious drug dealing to as much as 45 years in prison.
“That’s not an unpopular idea, to give sentencing judges some discretion on how they sentence the defendant,” he says. Representative Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, says the Supreme Court ruled there must be some “meaningful and realistic possibility for release” from prison for these teens.
“They use that word ‘meaningful’ over and over again,” Wolfe says. “…I don’t think the bill, as written, does either of those things.” If the bill becomes law, Wolfe predicts every sentence a judge hands down in cases involving juveniles convicted of rape or kidnapping will be appealed.
“We would be doing everyone a favor, including the victims of these offenses, if we play it safe…instead of pushing the envelope, trying to make this as punitive as possible,” she says. Garrett describes the bill that cleared the House as a compromise.
“The County Attorneys recommended just a flat 45 years. The Bar Association…recommended 25 years and we’ve kind of struck a middle ground here,” Garrett says. “And we’ve decided…that we should give the judge discretion.” The bill passed the House on an 81 to 17 vote. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.