- Associated Press - Saturday, April 11, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A bill approved by the Iowa Legislature this session would allow courts to continue sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but some people argue the measure designed to bring uniformity to an upended legal process is unfair to young offenders.

In response to recent U.S. and state supreme court rulings, the legislation would change state law regarding the sentencing of juveniles convicted of first-degree murder and other heinous crimes involving sexual abuse and kidnapping.

Current Iowa law requires a person younger than 18 with a first-degree murder conviction to serve a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. But the language became outdated after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 determined such mandatory sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.

Current Iowa law also states that a juvenile convicted of other class “A” felonies like first-degree sexual abuse and first-degree kidnapping must serve a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. But the Iowa Supreme Court later ruled that mandatory minimum sentences for such cases were also unconstitutional. The decisions led to resentencing orders for both inmates given life in prison without the possibility of parole when they were juveniles and inmates given mandatory minimum sentences when they were juveniles.

The bill approved by lawmakers aims to clean up Iowa law so it’s constitutional. If signed by Gov. Terry Branstad, the legislation would require judges to consider several factors before sentencing juveniles on a case-by-case basis to life in prison either with or without the possibility of parole. Judges who opt for the possibility of parole could also determine a minimum number of years needed before parole eligibility.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has raised several issues with the bill. Among them is a court’s ability to keep sentencing certain juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole because research shows children are less mature and ultimately less culpable than adults. They’re considering legal action if Branstad signs the bill into law.

“The recognition is that juveniles are obviously extremely young when these crimes are committed,” said Jeremy Rosen, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. “To say they can’t be paroled at any point for the rest of their life is (an) extremely drastic option.”

Before deciding whether to go to court over the matter, Rosen said the ACLU will see how the Iowa Supreme Court rules on a case involving Yvette Louisell, who was 17 when she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The case involves Louisell’s scheduled release, but the organization hopes the court will make a decision on the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to such prison terms.

Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, has led the bill in the Senate and been involved with previous attempts to advance similar legislation. He disagrees with the ACLU’s assessment.

“Just because you’re a juvenile, just because you’re 17 years, 11 months, 30 days old, doesn’t mean you can commit the most hideous crimes imaginable to human kind,” he said. “I think it is important for our judges to have the option of being able to sentence an offender who does that to life in prison without possibility of parole.”

While the bill was passed 47-3 in the Senate and 80-18 in the House, some lawmakers strongly opposed it.

Rep. Mary Lynn Wolfe, D-Clinton, became emotional as she spoke about the bill on the House floor.

“I do not believe it’s good public policy for us as a legislature to authorize the functional equivalent of the death penalty for any child, no matter how heinous the crime committed by that child, and these are heinous crimes, no question there,” she said.

The ACLU argues the national trend is moving away from such sentencing options for juveniles. According to data compiled by the organization, at least seven states considered legislation this year to eliminate it. Only two states, Iowa and Mississippi, considered adding on such language, according to the same data. Iowa’s bill was the only one to advance.

Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, led the bill in the House and said during its debate that the bill was “long overdue” and follows exact instructions by the Iowa Supreme Court. He also said he wasn’t going to wait on a future court ruling to fix the current law.

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