Juvenile sentencing ruling exposes deep fissure on Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on June 19th, 2017

Mandatory minimum criminal sentences for juvenile offenders do not always violate the Iowa Constitution but they should be short and uncommon, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The decision in State v. Roby is the latest in a series of decisions regarding the constitutionality of applying adult prison sentences to juvenile offenders. The Iowa rulings have come in response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the past decade holding that because juveniles are different than adults they deserve different treatment when it comes to criminal sentencing.

Friday’s decision exposed a splintered Court with just four justices in the majority – including three who thought the decision did not go far enough to protect juveniles – and with three justices filing a strongly worded dissent saying the Court’s juvenile justice jurisprudence has gone off the rails.

Christopher Roby’s appeal – and a second case decided Friday that raised the same issues – was prompted by the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle, which held that one-size-fits-all minimum prison sentences mandated by state law for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional.

The Court in Lyle said trial judges may sentence a juvenile to a minimum sentence, but only after holding a separate hearing to assess the appropriateness of the sentence for an individual defendant using five factors: the offender’s age; family environment; the circumstances of the crime; the offender’s competency in navigating the legal system; and potential for rehabilitation.

Roby was sentenced to a mandatory prison term of 17.5 years before being eligible for parole following his conviction for sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl when he was 16. He appealed, seeking reconsideration of his sentence based on the Lyle decision, but the trial court subsequently affirmed the original sentence.

In his appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Roby argued that the trial judge did not correctly apply the Lyle factors to his case. And, because Iowa’s sentencing courts have been generally inconsistent in applying the Lyle factors, he said the Court should simply declare mandatory minimum sentences are categorically unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.

The Court agreed with Roby’s first point – that the trial court did not correctly apply the five Lyle factors – and sent Roby’s case back for resentencing. But the majority, in a decision written by Chief Justice Mark Cady joined by Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins, refused to take the next step to declare juvenile mandatory minimums categorically unconstitutional.

Justice Daryl Hecht, in a concurring opinion, said he would have done that, and in separate concurrence Appel, joined by Wiggins, suggested he is open to that outcome.

Justice Bruce Zager filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield, expressing exasperation with the direction the Court has taken on juvenile sentencing.

“The court giveth and the court taketh away,” Zager wrote, noting that while the majority is right on the categorical constitutional question, the Court undermined that holding by failing to give sentencing courts clear standards to follow.

“In short,” he wrote, “while the Court has technically not invalidated all minimum terms of incarceration for juveniles, today’s opinion will have that effect in the real world in which our district courts must operate.”

 “What our judges need and want from this Court is an intelligent and practical roadmap to guide them in their sentencing decisions,” Zager wrote. “But the Court does not provide such a roadmap.”

In effect, he said, “the majority is imposing a de facto, categorical ban on any minimum prison sentence for a juvenile offender, whether the underlying sentence required any mandatory sentence or not. As I and several of my colleagues have repeatedly argued, if this is the direction the Court wants to take, then be direct enough to just say it. Let’s stop wasting all the time, resources, and money on a sentencing approach that is impractical and unworkable. It is a burden on our court system and a burden on our district court judges who look to our opinions for guidance.”

Zager said that while he is no fan of Iowa’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, some of which he said are far too long and treat many offenders unfairly, he said “my criticism of these laws is not age-specific. These sentencing laws are unfair for all ages.”

See our earlier post previewing the juvenile sentencing cases before the Iowa Supreme Court this term.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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