Decisions about parole should not be made “when the juvenile character is a work in progress,” but rather on based on later determinations about “those who over time show irredeemable corruption,” Justice Brent R. Appel wrote for the majority.
There are about 2,500 people who were sentenced as juveniles to life without any chance at parole, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group advocating criminal justice reform.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandating life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of homicides is unconstitutional, and earlier this year the justices expanded that decision and said it must be applied retroactively. In a 2010 ruling, the court had also said that juveniles could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for any crime short of a homicide.
Sentences and punishments for young people have gained increasing attention in recent years amid calls for broader changes to criminal justice issues, as there has been more discussion of how things like solitary confinement can impact young minds still taking shape. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has said that juveniles should have life sentences reviewed within years because of research showing that brain development stretches on “throughout adolescence and into early adulthood.”
Earlier this year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a law prohibiting sentencing people younger than 18 to life without parole, not long after North Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) signed a similar measure.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a case involving Isaiah Richard Sweet, who pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder for fatally shooting his grandparents. The court said a sentence of life without parole is akin to death sentences, in that the punishment comes “without hope of restoration” except in very rare circumstances.
Ultimately, the justices found that sentencing courts should not have to make a decision about life sentences without parole because they would be “speculative up-front decisions” without “adequate predictive information” about what could happen.
Parole is not guaranteed to people convicted of crimes committed as juveniles, the justices said, but that option should remain open. Appel wrote that parole boards will be better able to determine “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.”
The divided Iowa Supreme Court responded strongly to the issue, with two justices filing dissenting opinions and two filing concurring opinions.
Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote in one dissent — joined by two other justices — that he saw no reason for the court to set aside a decision made by state lawmakers to leave life imprisonment without parole. In another dissent, Justice Bruce B. Zager, also joined by two others, said it was “troubling” for the court to decide that lower courts could not decide sentences.