Iowa High Court bans life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles

In the majority opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court, even juveniles who commit the severest crimes deserve the possibility of a second chance.

Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald/AP/File
Isaiah Sweet is escorted into the Delaware County Courthouse, in Manchester, Iowa, March 11, 2014. Mr. Sweet was sentenced by a judge to life in prison without parole for the May 2012 murders of his grandparents. A divided Iowa Supreme Court banned judges from imposing life prison sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted of first-degree murder Friday. Friday's ruling overturns Sweet's sentence.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that judges are no longer allowed to sentence juveniles who commit first-degree murder to life in prison without parole.

The 4-3 decision determined that anyone 17 or under who commits even the most serious crimes should be given the opportunity to prove to the Iowa's parole board they have reformed. The foundation of the majority opinion was that such a sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution.

The decision came in the case of Isaiah Sweet, a 17-year old who murdered his grandparents in 2012, and takes a step further a 2012 US Supreme Court ruling prohibiting mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders.

Justice Brent Appel wrote in the majority opinion that part of the reasoning behind the decision is that the brains of juveniles are still developing and it's not possible for judges to work out at the time of sentencing which offenders are likely to reform.

However, he wrote that the decision does not guarantee parole and that some "will no doubt spend their lives in prison."

"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," Appel wrote.

On the dissenting side, Justice Edward Mansfield said that a vast majority of Iowa lawmakers' decision to last year reauthorize a judge's right to sentence a juvenile to life without parole in particularly cold-blooded cases – as one had done in the Sweet case – was the right choice.

A judge sentenced Mr. Sweet to life without parole in 2014, saying he was unlikely to reform. The high court's decision on Friday gives Sweet a future opportunity to prove he has reformed.

A 2012 US Supreme Court decision had already ruled that automatic life-sentences without parole could not be pronounced on juvenile offenders, but left a loophole for judges to determine when a plaintiff was of "irreparable corruption." The 2016 decision demanded that even those juveniles who have committed the most serious crimes be given the opportunity to demonstrate to a parole board they are worthy of a second chance.

As of January, there were around 2,300 juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences in the United States.

Iowa is now the 19th state that has banned such sentences either through legislative decision or a court, according to the Sentencing Project

Along with Massachusetts, Iowa is the second state to base the ban on life-without-parole sentences on the state constitution.

This report contains material from Associated Press.

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