By The Gazette Editorial Board
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing minors convicted of homicide to life prison terms amounts to cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.
The ruling in Miller v. Alabama states that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles. By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality …”
So courts can still sentence juvenile offenders to lengthy or even life sentences, but only after judges consider each individual’s unique circumstances. And although the ruling came in a case involving life sentences, the court is clearly sending a message that harsh, mandatory and non-individualized sentences for minors are constitutionally dubious.
And that’s why we’re puzzled and troubled by Gov. Terry Branstad’s response to the ruling. This week, the governor issued a commutation order changing the life sentences of 38 Iowa offenders convicted of murder as minors to 60-year prison terms. In essence, the governor responded to a call from the nation’s highest court for individualized sentencing with a blanket edict that treated all 38 cases identically, while imposing a sentence only nominally different from life.
We appreciate the governor’s desire to keep murderers behind bars and to spare victims’ families from the prospect of new trials or other painful proceedings. We also understand that the governor believes it should be up to elected officials, not judges, to decide which punishments fit particular crimes.
But in our system, the Supreme Court has the final word on the constitutionality of our laws. And even though we or the governor may not like or agree with that final word, its rulings carry the weight of law. And the governor’s attempt to sidestep that authority through the use of commutations, to essentially insert himself as the final judge and jury, is a mistake and a misuse of his considerable authority.
We have a high-quality courts system in Iowa, a system that handles important criminal cases every day. We have faith in that system’s ability to handle the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling, just as it previously dispensed justice in the 38 cases at issue. We see no need or compelling legal argument for the governor to act as a stand-in for the courts.
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