A controversial decision by the Iowa Supreme Court this summer has transformed the criminal justice system in Iowa as it relates to juveniles. In this split decision, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to subject juvenile defendants to mandatory minimum sentences for their convictions. Currently, Iowa law requires any juvenile 16 years or older who commits a forcible felony to be prosecuted as an adult. Forcible felonies — such as murder, attempted murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping, robbery and vehicular homicide — are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence that requires the juvenile offender serve 70 percent of his or her sentence prior to being considered eligible for parole. In this recent decision the Court held that this sentencing structure was cruel and unusual as it applied to juveniles.
In the recent Iowa Supreme Court decision, State v. Lyle, the juvenile defendant (Lyle) was convicted of second degree robbery, a forcible felony. He was 17 at the time. The crime involved an altercation outside Lincoln High School in Des Moines. Lyle punched another young man and stole a small bag of marijuana from him. Under Iowa law, Lyle was prosecuted as an adult. Under the sentencing strategy at the time, Lyle was subject to a 10-year term of imprisonment and would not be eligible for parole or work release until he had served at least seven years of this term.
The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision held it is unconstitutional to subject juveniles to these mandatory minimum sentences without first considering the offender’s background, including age, maturity and family history. This decision came following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 holding it was cruel and unusual to sentence any juvenile defendant to a life-without-parole sentence. Since this decision, Iowa has made a series of decisions affecting inmates who committed crimes as juveniles. This most recent decision was the first in the nation to determine mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are unconstitutional as applied to juvenile offenders. The Court found that children “lack the risk-calculation skills adults are presumed to assess and are inherently sensitive, impressionable, and developmentally malleable.”
What happens now? All current inmates sentenced for crimes committed as a juvenile pursuant to a mandatory minimum sentence strategy must be brought back before the district court to be resentenced. The district court judges must consider a variety of factors including age, maturity and family history during resentencing. The judge has the discretion to resentence to a similar term of imprisonment as previously imposed or may consider a lesser sentence, including probation, depending on these factors.
Information provided by Amy Pellegrin, attorney at law, Hopkins & Huebner P.C., 2700 Grand Ave., Suite 111, Des Moines.