A bill discussed at the statehouse Thursday would set new sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of first degree murder. It’s in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for those who committed first degree murder as juveniles.
Elizabeth Reynoldson is with the Iowa Bar Association, which drafted a bill that would give district courts two options. “Sentence a juvenile to either life without the possibility of parole or life with the possibility of parole after serving 45 years,” Reynoldson said. The Association of County Attorneys is also behind the bill. Supporter say it gives the courts two clear options.
Representative Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, was the only one of the three representatives at Thursday’s hearing who voted against moving the bill forward. “Juveniles have not had the opportunity to actually form into whatever adult it is that they’ll be,” Wolfe said. Wolfe is especially concerned that the measure gives the courts the option to still sentence juveniles to life without parole.
Under the Supreme Court ruling, Wolfe believes life without parole should be rare. “They’re so bad that it’s clear that this person…they’ll never be able to be rehabilitated,” Wolfe explained. Deputy Attorney General Thomas Miller said he appreciates hearing from those who know the criminals serving time, but he added there is voice missing at the table.
“I’ve been involved in a number of these cases, and I’ve maintained contact with the surviving relatives of murder victims and one of the things that affects them the most adversely is the lack of finality they see in our criminal justice system,” Miller said.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee expects the bill to eventually make it out of the full Iowa House. A bill in the Senate would allow parole after 25 years. Back in July, Governor Branstad commuted the punishment of 38 inmates to 60 years in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Critics say that still amounts to life in prison.