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Iowa Supreme Court -- no life without parole for juveniles

Teenagers are capable of doing great things. Unfortunately, they are also capable of making serious mistakes, because they lack the maturity, judgment and life experience that comes with being an adult. The Iowa Supreme Court recognized this when it recently ruled that a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender violates the Iowa Constitution by imposing cruel and unusual punishment.

The decision came in the case of a man who was convicted of killing his grandparents when he was 17-years-old. The Supreme Court reasoned that when sentencing a juvenile who was tried as an adult, a judge cannot accurately predict the juvenile's chances of rehabilitation and should not have to speculate as to those chances. The court said that a parole board, evaluating the defendant after the person has had a chance to mature, was in a better position to determine whether the offender had rehabilitated.

The U.S. Supreme Court, interpreting the federal constitution, has previously ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles, but did not go as far as the Iowa Supreme Court in ruling that imposition of such a sentence is always unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled instead that a judge must take into account a defendant's individual circumstances before sentencing the person to life without parole.

The adult criminal justice system is no place for a juvenile. Iowa long ago established a separate juvenile justice system, the purpose of which is rehabilitation instead of punishment. And, juveniles often stand a better chance of rehabilitation than adult offenders. When a juvenile faces murder charges or other serious charges, the first priority of the defense is to keep the case in juvenile court where it belongs.

Source: ABA Journal, "Iowa Supreme Court rules life without parole is an unconstitutional sentence for juveniles," Debra Cassens Weiss, May 31, 2016

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