Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: What a difference 15 eighty-fifths can make in your day

by Rox Laird | September 22, 2016

Iowa Supreme Court justices and courtroom observers may need calculators to follow an oral argument next month in a case that involves how quickly prison inmates earn the right to early discharge from their sentences.

Two Iowa women convicted as juveniles argue they should be eligible for earlier discharge under the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle, which held that mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders that allow no judicial discretion are unconstitutional. The Department of Corrections argues the Lyle ruling did not change how state law dictates when the two may be eligible for early discharge.

The legal dispute over how the court should interpret the impact of the Lyle decision on early prison discharges is fairly straightforward: The two petitioners argue that state law requires the Department of Corrections to calculate release dates based on their prison sentences, not the underlying crimes for which they were convicted. The Department of Corrections takes the opposite view.

The practical implication of which view will prevail involves some head-scratching math.

Under Iowa law, prison inmates whose conduct makes them eligible for earned-time credits could cut their time served roughly in half. But inmates sentenced to certain prison terms must serve 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for discharge.

To calculate the former, the Corrections Department grants qualifying inmates credits equal to 1.2 days for every day served toward early discharge. In other sentences, the department uses a formula of 15 eighty-fifths of a day per day served to calculate the 85 percent.

The difference between the results of the two calculations can be substantial, as seen in the appeals of Shannon Breeden and Laura Hochmuth now before the court.

Breeden began serving a 25-year sentence in 2003 for attempted murder with a mandatory minimum provision, meaning she would not be eligible for early discharge until 2023 under the department’s 85 percent calculation.

After the Lyle ruling, Breeden’s sentence was vacated, and she was resentenced to the same 25 year term but with the mandatory minimum provision eliminated. Thus, she argues the 85-percent calculation tied to mandatory minimum sentences does not apply and she should have been eligible for early discharge three years ago.

The difference is even more extreme for Hochmuth. She was sentenced to 50 years for kidnapping and robbery and would not have been eligible for early discharge before 2040. Without the mandatory minimum provision, she argues she should be eligible in 2021, nearly two decades earlier.

In addition to the Breeden and Hochmuth appeals set for argument on Oct. 20, the Court will consider a third appeal (Shawn James v. State of Iowa) raising the same issue, but that case will be submitted to the court without oral argument.

The outcome of these cases no doubt will be closely watched by defense lawyers, prison inmates and corrections officials alike: If the court sides with the plaintiffs, as many as 150 other offenders convicted as juveniles could benefit, according to an Attorney General’s Office estimate.


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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.


  • Iowa Supreme Court Oral Arguments
  • Iowa Supreme Court Opinion and/or Further Review Conference
  • Iowa Court of Appeals Oral Arguments
  • Holidays



On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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