Juvenile Justice

SCOTUS decision on mandatory life for juveniles applies retroactively, Iowa court rules

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Saying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last year barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles can be retroactively applied in Iowa, the state’s highest court opens the door for dozens, possibly hundreds of cases to be reviewed.

The case before the Iowa Supreme Court arose after Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, in response to last year’s high court decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, commuted the life sentences of 38 Iowa juvenile killers to 60 years before they could be eligible for parole. Several appealed that commutation as still too harsh a sentence.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed last week in three cases decided last week, one siding with a lower court judge that reduced a life sentence and ordering the review of sentencing in two other cases.

The Des Moines Register and The State have stories.

In its rulings, the court held that Gov. Branstad’s automatic commutation to 60 years is essentially a life sentence and in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Oftentimes, it is important that the spirit of the law not be lost in the application of the law,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the court. “This is one such time.”

In a dissent, Justice Edward Mansfield warned that the majority’s opinion could open the door to resentencing in as many as 425 cases.

“We can now look forward to a flurry of new proceedings as the state, defense attorneys, and our own judicial system sort through the unresolved issues raised by the majority opinion,” he wrote, according to the State.

The Des Moines Register noted that the court’s decision comes in the midst of a national debate over tough sentencing laws, many of them passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The paper noted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech last week at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in which he announced the Justice Department would stop seeking mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

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