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Frustrated by Supreme Court ruling, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad acts to keep teen killers behind bars

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that states could not sentence juvenile killers to life without the possibility of parole under mandatory sentencing guidelines, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said he believed the victims were being forgotten.

And so, in a move some legal analysts say flies in the face of the Supreme Court ruling, the governor commuted the life sentences of 38 juveniles, reducing their terms to 60 years, in a bid to make sure they stay behind bars for a very long time.

If the sentences hold, those offenders will face parole boards in their mid-70s, provided they live that long.

“He simply replaced the life sentence with another very long sentence,” said Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.  

Writing for the majority in Miller v. Alabama, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that in 28 states, juveniles were sentenced to life in prison without consideration for their upbringing, peer pressure or modern brain science. Kagan also noted studies that say few of the teens who commit crimes “develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.”

“Their ‘lack of maturity’ and ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking,” Kagan wrote. Miller is among several rulings since 2002 in which modern brain research had informed the majority's view that children reason differently than adults.

Levick said up to 2,100 juveniles across the country have been sentenced to life without parole under their state’s mandatory sentencing guidelines. Mandatory sentencing means that an individual convicted of a crime receives a pre-determined sentence; as a result, a judge’s discretion is limited. The ruling does not apply to cases where judges are allowed to impose their own sentences.

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Gov. Branstad said Miller disregards the suffering endured by the families of the victims. He said he worried that if he did not commute the offenders' sentences, they would request another hearing and ultimately receive a lesser sentence.

“First-degree murder is an intentional and premeditated crime and those who are found guilty are dangerous and should be kept off the streets and out of our communities,” Branstad said in a statement released Monday.

Gordon Allen, who represents two Iowa women who were sentenced to life as juveniles, called the governor’s action an “overreach.” Allen said the governor misunderstood the court ruling, which says sentences should be determined case by case. He said he was working on how to legally challenge the governor's decision.

“I don’t think a carte blanche with 60 years for everybody is in line with Miller,” he said.

“Branstad said, ‘These are the most heinous criminals around,’” Allen continued. “Quite frankly, some of them are. But some of them are there because of peer pressure.”

Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, said states are sorting out their response to the Supreme Court ruling.

“The hope is that states will heed the message of the Supreme Court that you cannot sentence children like they are adults,” she said.

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