Lengthy Juvey Sentences Struck Down in Iowa

     (CN) – Juvenile offenders should not face long sentences that offer only the “prospect of geriatric release,” Iowa’s highest court ruled, citing recent Supreme Court precedent.
     In the June 2012 decision Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional for courts to impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers.
     In light of this decision, the Iowa Supreme Court released three opinions Friday, applying Miller to sentences that are the practical equivalent of life-without-parole sentences, given current life expectancies.
     Denem Null was 16 years old when he was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery. He received a 75-year sentence, with the possibility of parole after 52.5 years.
     In a lengthy 62-page opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court took the opportunity to review the history of the Eight Amendment, and its application to juvenile offenders.
     Vacating Null’s sentence, Justice Brent Appel wrote for the court wrote that “the district court must recognize that because ‘children are constitutionally different from adults,’ they ordinarily cannot be held to the same standard of culpability as adults in criminal sentencing. The constitutional difference arises from a juvenile’s lack of maturity, underdeveloped sense of responsibility, vulnerability to peer pressure, and the less fixed nature of the juvenile’s character.”
     Juveniles are also more capable of change, and more likely to respond to rehabilitation: “The district court must recognize that most juveniles who engage in criminal activity are not destined to become lifelong criminals,” the opinion states.
     Miller does not promise eventual release to juvenile offenders, but Appel said that “the prospect of geriatric release, if one is to be afforded the opportunity for release at all, does not provide a ‘meaningful opportunity’ to demonstrate the ‘maturity and rehabilitation’ required to obtain release and reenter society.”
     On remand, the Iowa courts should keep in mind that “a lengthy prison sentence without the possibility of parole such as that involved in this case is appropriate, if at all, only in rare or uncommon cases,” the justices concluded.
     Jeffrey Ragland was 17 years old in 1986 when he and two friends attacked another group of boys in a grocery store parking lot. One of the boys with Ragland struck one of the boys in the other group with a tire iron, and the injury proved fatal.
     Ragland was convicted with first-degree murder, and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
     After Miller, the governor of Iowa commuted his sentence along with other those of 38 other juvenile murderers to life with the possibility of parole after 60 years.
     But a district Pottawattamie County Judge found that the commuted sentence was the functional equivalent of life without parole, and the Iowa Supreme Court agreed.
     The rationale of Miller “reveals that the unconstitutional imposition of a mandatory life-without-parole sentence is not fixed by substituting it with a sentence with parole that is the practical equivalent of a life sentence without parole,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the court. “Oftentimes, it is important that the spirit of the law not be lost in the application of the law. This is one such time.”
     Ragland’s commuted sentence “still amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution,” the 36-page decision states.
     The ruling affirms the lower court’s resentencing of Ragland to 25 years to life, making him immediately eligible for parole.
     Desirae Pearson was 17 years old when she was convicted of robbing and burglarizing two separate homes on Thanksgiving night 2010. She received a 50-year sentence, with the possibility of parole after 35 years.
     “Though Miller involved sentences of life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders, its reasoning applies equally to Pearson’s sentence of thirty-five years without the possibility of parole for these offenses,” Appel wrote. “Therefore, we think a minimum of thirty-five years without the possibility of parole for the crimes involved in this case violates the core teachings of Miller.” (Italics in original.)
     Cady, concurring specially, said: “As the background of this case demonstrates, a juvenile’s impetuosity can lead them to commit not only serious crimes, but considerably pettier crimes as well. Although Desirae Pearson was a participant of a senseless evening of crime – all while stopping in the middle to enjoy a milk shake with her boyfriend – she also committed theft in the fifth degree at several other times during her youth. Can we honestly say, as a matter of law, that the transient immaturity of Pearson’s youth played no part at all in the commission of these lesser offenses, decreasing her culpability? The answer, of course, is that we cannot.”
     Judges Mansfield, Waterman and Zager dissented from the Null and Pearson decisions, and argued that both sentences complied with Miller.
     “At the end of its opinion, the majority tries to move into the practical world and explain ‘what the district court is required to do’ to comply with Miller,” Waterman wrote in the Null case. “However, I find the explanation unenlightening, and I fear our district courts will as well. My colleagues repeatedly say that ‘the district court must recognize’ certain propositions. What does this directive mean? If it means that our trial judges must take on a certain state of mind when sentencing juveniles, how is that to be enforced? We don’t usually remand cases for judges to ‘recognize’ things.”
     While Pearson’s sentence was surely harsh, even for an adult, “the district court is surely right: It is not a life sentence,” and Miller should not apply, Waterman wrote. (Italics in original.)
     The judge also worried that Pearson decision has turned Miller “into a platform to potentially overturn hundreds of non-LWOP [life without parole] prison sentences imposed on juvenile offenders in Iowa. This would be unprecedented.”

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