The Iowa Supreme Court has banned judges from imposing life sentences on teen killers, which would keep them from the possibility of parole in the future.
Teens convicted of first-degree murder in Iowa can now prove themselves to the Iowa Board of Parole that they have been rehabilitated and can be released back into society, according to The Associated Press. On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a life sentence without parole is cruel and unusual punishment according to the Iowa Constitution.
Justice Brent Appel wrote for the majority, saying that no judge knows which teen killers could be rehabilitated due to their developing brains. Some teens may be able to turn their lives around and be beneficial to society.
At the same time, the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court does not guarantee parole for every juvenile offender. Appel noted that teen offenders “who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.”
“The determination of irredeemable corruption, however, must be made when the information is available to make that determination and not at a time when the juvenile character is a work in progress,” Appel wrote.
However, the fate of teen killers will not be in the hands of judges; rather, the fate of the prisoners will be determined by the Iowa Board of Parole.
“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.”
Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court made the decision to overturn life without parole sentences in the case of Isaiah Sweet, who was 17-years-old when he killed his custodial grandparents in 2012. Sweet was raised by his grandparents since the age of 4, and the court believed that the murders of his grandparents were premeditated.
In October 2013, Sweet pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder.
In 2014, a judge sentenced Sweet to life in prison without parole. He was the first teenager to receive the harshest punishment under Iowa law since a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned mandatory sentences for juveniles of life without parole. The judge said Isaiah Sweet was a cold-blooded murderer and could probably not be rehabilitated, according to the Star Tribune. The judge claimed Sweet was “extremely dangerous” and society would be at risk if he was ever allowed out on parole.
Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield believed that Sweet’s original sentencing was correct. He argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has not banned life sentences outright, and other states have not followed a path to ban life sentences without parole.
However, the Iowa Supreme Court still ruled that life sentencing for teens without parole was not appropriate. Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the majority opinion to decide to ban life sentences without parole in Iowa.
Now, judges will not have to make the decision on the spot to determine whether a teenager will be likely to offend in the future or whether his or her changing brain may allow rehabilitation. Some have argued that scientists cannot predict which teenagers will rehabilitate, let alone a judge. Those who support the ruling believe it will take time for teenagers to show whether or not they can be rehabilitated.
Bans on sentencing for life without parole are advocated by the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, reports The Des Moines Register.
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