A divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday banned judges from imposing sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.
The court ruled 4-3 that the sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution. Even juveniles who commit the most heinous crimes should someday have the option of proving to the Iowa Board of Parole that they have been rehabilitated and are fit for release, Justice Brent Appel wrote for the majority.
Judges are simply unable to predict at the time of trial which youthful offenders have reliable prospects for turning their lives around, he said, adding that the young offenders’ brains are still developing.
Justices ruled in the case of Isaiah Sweet, who was 17 when he killed his custodial grandparents at their home in Manchester in 2012.
Appel wrote that the ruling doesn’t guarantee parole for juvenile offenders, and warned that those “who over time show irredeemable corruption will no doubt spend their lives in prison.” Those determinations, however, must be made by parole officials and not sentencing judges.
“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.
Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said the court was wrong to strike down a sentencing option that had been overwhelmingly reauthorized by Iowa lawmakers last year. He said the judge was correct to use his discretion to sentence Sweet to life for the premeditated murder of his grandparents, who had raised him since age 4.