For Immediate Release: May 27, 2016
(Washington, DC) The Iowa Supreme Court today issued a historic ruling in State v. Sweet that life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger violate the Iowa Constitution. Iowa joins a growing number of states that have outlawed this death-in-prison sentence for youth 17 and younger – a sentence only the United States imposes. The ruling builds upon a swell of opinions from the United States Supreme Court finding that youth must be treated less harshly than adults because of their unique characteristics as children.
Today’s ruling invalidates the life-without-parole sentences of dozens in Iowa sentenced for crimes committed as children.
“The Iowa Supreme Court has today enshrined in the law a protection too easily revoked from children who commit serious crimes: a respect for their child status,” said Jody Kent Lavy, Director & National Coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a nonprofit that leads a national movement to end life without parole for youth. “The Court has respected what science and common sense demand: that children, because of their differences from adults, be treated less harshly in the eyes of the law, and never discarded forever with no hope of review.”
Today’s decision does not guarantee parole; it requires that the state never impose a sentence on children 17 or younger that condemns them to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any chances at review. It used as a deciding factor the difficulty a sentencer would have in determining whether a child’s crime reflects “permanent incorrigibility,” as required by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2016 ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana.
“[W]e are asking the sentencer to do the impossible, namely, to determine whether the offender is ‘irretrievably corrupt’ at a time when even trained professionals with years of clinical experience would not attempt to make such a determination,” the Iowa Supreme Court reasoned.
It now falls to lower courts in Iowa to implement the decision fairly and replace any unconstitutional life-without-parole sentences with alternatives that afford meaningful opportunities for release based on the mitigating factors of youth.
In last four years, the number of states that ban juvenile life without parole have more than tripled. Among them are Nevada, West Virginia, and Connecticut.