Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) is trying to circumvent a recent Supreme Court decision which held that mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Branstad disagrees with the decision in Miller v. Alabama and is acting to undercut the decision’s effect in Iowa by altering the sentences of certain juvenile offenders in his state.
In an attempt to subvert the decision, he commuted the sentences of all 38 Iowa inmates who were sentenced as children and are currently serving mandatory life in prison sentences to 60 years in prison. By requiring that the offenders serve 60 years, Branstad guarentees that none will be eligible for parole before they are well into their 70s. A statement from the Governor’s office reflects the fact that the Governor’s action complies with the technical effect of the decision while completely ignoring the reasoning behind it.
“During this process, the victims are all too often forgotten by our justice system, and are forced to re-live the pain of the tragedies,” said Branstad. “These victims have had their loved ones violently taken away from them. I take this action today to protect these victims, their loved ones’ memories, and to protect the safety of all Iowans.” [...]
“Today Governor Branstad and I want to ensure that justice is served, Iowans are protected, and victims are heard,” said [Branstad's Lt. Gov. Kim] Reynolds. “The governor’s action today gives the opportunity for parole in compliance with the recent Supreme Court decision; however, the action also protects victims from having to be re-victimized each year by worrying about whether the Parole Board will release the murderer who killed their loved one.”
Branstad’s focus on victims and assertion that his action is in compliance with the Supreme Court decision are both off base. In Miller, the Court did not rule that juveniles who commit heinous crimes cannot be sentenced to life without parole, just that those sentences cannot be mandatorily imposed. The decision was based on the fact that children are fundamentally different from adults in ways that are particularly important when it comes to sentencing. Children are more reckless, risk-taking, and impulsive, while also being more vulnerable to outside influences. Children also lack control over their environment and have a greater capacity for reform than adults.
What impact Miller will have on inmates who were sentenced as juveniles and are serving mandatory life remains an unanswered question. But one thing is clear: unilaterally commuting sentences to make them eligible for parole only after 60 years cannot be the result the Supreme Court anticipated. For a juvenile, facing 60 years in prison is not substantially different from a life sentence. But more importantly, the ruling declared when it comes to mandatory sentencing, age matters, and Branstad didn’t take into account the age, or any other characteristic, of offenders when he changed the sentences. He merely decided that his opinion on the feelings of victims and length of punishment should overrule the Supreme Court’s decision.