Underlying the recent publicity concerning the resentencing and parole of Kristina Fetters is new research dealing with brain development that has led the U.S. and Iowa Supreme Courts to conclude that juveniles are not as culpable as adults. Such a belief originally led to the development of juvenile courts over one hundred years ago, at which time it was thought that the human brain was fully developed around the onset of puberty. More recent research has revealed that the brain continues to develop into the early or mid-twenties, leading the Courts to conclude that sentences for juveniles convicted of serious crimes must be individualized to take into account the youth's maturity and other relevant factors.
The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down three significant decisions regarding the sentencing of youth prosecuted in criminal (adult) courts. The first of these decisions in 2005, Roper v. Simons, abolished the use of capital punishment for youth. This was followed in 2010 by Graham v. Florida, which abolished the use of life sentences without the possibility of parole for youth in cases that involved a non-homicide offense. Most recently, in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama the Court decided that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for youth were unconstitutional even in cases involving homicide. While a youth convicted of homicide can still be sentenced to life in prison without parole, this punishment can no longer be required by statute.
To date there have been no legislative changes in Iowa in response to Miller. However, on July 16, 2012 Governor Branstad commuted 38 youth in Iowa serving life without parole for a homicide conviction "to a term of life with no possibility for parole or work release for sixty (60) actual years, with no credit for earned time." Then on August 16, 2013 the Iowa Supreme Court, in State v. Ragland (12-1758), concluded that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miller was a substantive change and in Iowa would apply retroactively. The Iowa Supreme Court has also remanded to District Court two cases involving long mandatory sentences other than life sentences to determine whether they might also be unconstitutional.
The Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, at the request of the Public Safety Advisory Board, is in the process of preparing a report to support Board recommendations expected during the upcoming legislative session. The General Assembly should heed these recommendations by enacting changes to the Iowa Code consistent with brain development research and these recent court decisions.