Tomorrow is Juvenile Sentencing Day at the Iowa Supreme Court

by Ryan Koopmans | August 15, 2013

By Ryan Koopmans

Tomorrow morning, the Iowa Supreme Court will release three opinions that may change the way violent juvenile offenders are sentenced in Iowa.  In State v. Ragland, State v. Null, and State v. Pearson, the justices will decide whether a sentence for murder of life with the possibility of parole after 60 years (Ragland), a sentence for murder and robbery of 75 years with the possibility of parole after 52.5 years (Null), and a sentence for two counts of armed robbery and burglary of 50 years with the possibility of parole after 35 years (Pearson) constitute cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on a minor.

Each challenge stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. AlabamaThere, a five-justice majority ruled  that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional.  Judges can still impose a life  a sentence without the possibility of parole in some cases, but they must use their discretion when doing so (that is, the sentence can’t be mandatory).

The defendants in Ragland, Pearson, and Null are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to expand Miller.

When Miller was decided, Jeffrey Ragland and 37 Iowans were serving mandatory life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for murders they committed before age 18.  After Miller, Governor Branstad commuted those sentences from life “without possibility of parole” to “with the possibility for parole after 60 years,”  meaning that those sentences fell outside the heartland of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. But Ragland says that 60 years is still too long under Miller.  He’ll be in his mid 70s then, so he doesn’t think that’s a “meaningful” opportunity for parole.

Denem Null thinks the Iowa Supreme Court should go even further than that.  A district court judge sentenced him to 75 five years with the possibility of parole after 52.5 years.  That wasn’t a mandatory sentence, so to rule in Null’s favor, the Iowa Supreme Court will have to decide that Miller extends to discretionary, non-life sentences.

Going further still, Desirae Pearson is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to extend Miller to a discretionary, 50-year sentence for two counts of armed robbery and burglary.  She’s up for parole after 35 years.

If you’re interested in sentencing policy and constitutional law, tomorrow should be a big day in Iowa.  The justices are sure to disagree in some or all of these cases, so expect several opinions.


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