Juvenile Justice

Iowa Supreme Court rules life without parole is an unconstitutional sentence for juveniles

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Iowa Supreme Court

The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines, which houses the Iowa Supreme Court.

Sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole violates the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court said such sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment, report the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Des Moines Register.

The 4-3 ruling (PDF) goes further than the U.S. Supreme Court, which has barred the death penalty and mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court said individual circumstances must be taken into account in sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a murder.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in the case of Isaiah Sweet, who killed his grandparents when he was 17.

“We conclude that sentencing courts should not be required to make speculative up-front decisions on juvenile offenders’ prospects
for rehabilitation because they lack adequate predictive information supporting such a decision,” the Iowa Supreme Court said. “The parole board will be better able to discern whether the offender is irreparably corrupt after time has passed, after opportunities for maturation and rehabilitation have been provided, and after a record of success or failure in the rehabilitative process is available.”

Iowa and Massachusetts are the only two states to ban juvenile sentences of life without parole as a result of court rulings, the Des Moines Register says, citing information from the Sentencing Project. Seventeen other states also ban such sentences, the story says. The New York Times, however, says 16 states ban life without parole for juveniles.

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