Political News

Iowa court: Mandatory juvenile sentences should be uncommon

Posted June 16

— The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday ruled that mandatory sentences without the chance of parole should be "uncommon," making it among the most aggressive states in curtailing such required prison time.

The 4-3 opinion illustrates how heavily divided Iowa's highest court remains on the treatment of juvenile offenders.

Iowa, like many states have wrestled with how to deal with juvenile offenders after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that mandatory life prison sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional. The Iowa Supreme Court was the first to take that concept further in 2014 concluding no juveniles should face mandatory minimum sentences without the careful consideration of a judge. Friday's decision took it a step further by saying juvenile sentences without parole should be uncommon.

Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote the majority opinion in the appeal of Christopher Roby, now 33, who was convicted of sexual abuse for a series of assaults over several years that began in 1998 involving a girl then age 10 when he was 15 and continued until the girl told a friend and Roby was arrested in 2002.

He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years with the judge requiring him to serve 17 ½ years before he could be eligible for parole. After a rehearing in 2014 a judge concluded the sentence was fair and Roby appealed.

While the majority opinion rejects Roby's argument that all juvenile offenders in Iowa should be immediately eligible for parole, he said the trial judge reviewing Roby's sentence failed to carefully weigh the case and base the decision on expert testimony and the evidence.

"We appreciate the difficulty judges can often face when called upon to decide if juvenile offenders should be eligible for parole," Cady wrote. But when judges properly consider each case, he said, "a sentence of incarceration without parole eligibility will be an uncommon result."

Justice Daryl Hecht in his own opinion that agreed with Cady went as far to say he believes the Iowa Constitution prohibits a mandatory prison sentence for any offense committed by a juvenile. Justice Brent Appel said if the ruling results in inconsistent sentences and it is unworkable, the obvious solution would be to "categorically eliminate the application of adult mandatory minimum sentences to juvenile offenders." Justice David Wiggins agreed. All three were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Three justices appointed by conservative Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said the court's decision moves Iowa away from all other states to an extreme position.

Justice Bruce Zager said the court's ruling will "be seized upon in future cases to strike down any minimum term of incarceration." Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield agreed.

Roby's attorney, John Audlehelm, said the ruling means Roby will return to district court for a new sentencing hearing.

"It seems to me from the court's opinion there's still a strong assumption that the trial court judge will not impose the sentence," he said. Roby has served more than a decade in prison.

The court ruled in a second case Friday using its rationale in the Roby case to send back for resentencing Jarrod Majors, 33, who is serving a similar mandatory sentence for attempted murder involving a home invasion in Bedford in 2002 when he was 17. He entered a neighbor's home wearing a ski mask, carrying a large knife and a rifle and attacked the family. No one was seriously injured but Major pleaded guilty to attempted murder.

Chris Slobogin, a juvenile justice expert who heads Vanderbilt University's criminal justice program said Iowa in an outlier in its juvenile sentencing rulings but depending on one's perspective, could be considered ahead of the pack.

"I think eventually many courts are going to come around to the view that mandatory sentencing in the juvenile context is unconstitutional," he said.

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