Vol. 3 #12 July 30, 2012
Invasion of the Legislative and Judicial Branches
On Monday, July 16, Governor Terry Branstad issued a commutation to 38 of Iowa’s lifers. That group of lifers consists of those felons who are serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
In a sweeping motion, the governor commuted the life sentences of all 38 individuals to a minimum term of sixty years, with no possibility of parole during that initial 60-year sentence. Immediately, the decision raised questions that keep coming.
Can he do that? That will be up to the courts to determine, and the governor’s decision will be challenged. The Iowa Constitution gives the governor the power to commute a life sentence to a number of years, and it is backed up by statutory law. However, that’s about where agreement on the governor’s limitations ends and the questions begin.
A Des Moines Register editorial said that the governor took the power “to be judge, jury and sentencing court all in a single act.” He did more than that. He created a new punishment – minimum sixty-year sentence without the possibility of parole. He created a sentencing scheme that disallows a former juvenile to serve anything but a life sentence.
To begin with, nowhere in the Iowa Code is there a sentence of sixty years. In creating the 60-year term, Governor Branstad usurped the power of the Legislature by creating law. This determinate sentencing scheme is a power left solely to the Legislature. Where did the governor come up with 60 years? This is a discussion that must be left to the general assembly. In this respect, he usurped the authority of the Iowa Legislature.
Next, the governor has the power to commute life sentences to a term of years, but there is no provision that allows him to place a caveat on that sentence, such as a limitation on how much time must be served before the Parole Board may consider releasing the individual. In this regard, he again has usurped the power of the Legislature, as well as the courts, and tied the hands of his own Parole Board.
“The power of the governor under the Constitution of the State of Iowa to grant a . . . commutation of sentence . . . shall not be impaired.” Yet, the Legislature has placed limitations on that power in the past. It has required that a person may “no more frequently than once every ten years, make an application to the governor requesting that the person’s sentence be commuted to a term of years.” And, the Legislature has defined a process for commutation. The governor ignored the process in delivering his commutations. “The director of the Iowa department of corrections may make a request to the governor.” “[T]he governor shall send a copy of the request to the Iowa board of parole for investigation and recommendations as to whether the person should be considered for commutation.” And Parole Board must “conduct an interview of the class “A” felon and shall make a report of its findings and recommendations to the governor.”
The entire process was deliberately ignored as the governor conducted a political sidestep in which his only basis for commuting the sentences was for the supposed safety of Iowans and to ease the pain of victims. Neither of these reasons is included in the statutory process under Iowa Code Chapters 81, 331, 902, 904A, and 914.
But more importantly, the governor didn’t look deep enough into the case that brought this about. In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held: “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, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.” Governor Branstad looked only at the first part of the holding – lifetime incarceration. He failed to take into account that the decision also requires a process. Iowa has that process.
“Graham, Roper, and our individualized sentencing decisions make clear that a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.” The governor, playing the role of judge or jury (which he cannot do according to the Iowa Constitution Article III, Section 1), has failed to consider individualized mitigating circumstances before he made his sweeping motion of commutation, before any of the offenders had a real opportunity for commutation as it is designed in the Iowa Code. He broke the spirit of the law, and the spirit of many lifetime offenders who had a ray of hope. Not all of these offenders are “dangerous”, as Branstad proclaimed. Some are; others have made a real effort at rehabilitation. There should be a distinction made on the merits of each case as presented to the Board of Parole.
Serving a minimum of sixty years means that one of these targeted offenders must have to be in their mid to late 70s to even begin the process of parole. In Iowa, the typical lifer who leaves the Iowa prison system (by death or other means including appeal) leaves after 16 years (median) of incarceration. The average lifer who dies in prison, dies at a median age of 56. So a sixty-year sentence is really nothing more than a life sentence.
Governor Branstad did nothing to comply with the United States Supreme Court. He did everything to promote his prospect for reelection.
Forgotten Victims Conference
Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents
– sponsored by Child & Family Policy Center
Learn about the unique needs and opportunities to help children of incarcerated parents during the Incarceration’s Forgotten Victims Conference, sponsored by Child and Family Policy Center.
Charity Lee will share her experiences with multiple family members in prison- one for the murder of her father, and one for the murder of her daughter.
Joy DeSomber will describe how she helped her children deal with the experience of a father in prison for a double homicide.
Also included are presentations by:
Incarceration’s Forgotten Victims
Des Moines Main Library
1000 Grand Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50309
9:15 am on Friday, August 24, 2012.
And More Quiet Victims
The link below is a story from NBC News about the parents of those people who have gone on rampages that resulted in some of the country’s biggest tragedies.
1 in 104 adults in America is in prison.
1 in 14 dollars spent by states goes to prisons, totaling $52 billion per year.
1 in 2.3 people (43%) released from prison go back there within 3 years of their release.
Those shocking numbers come from a new infographic at the Pew Center on the States.
They tell a sobering story: We lock up more people than anyone else in the world, and despite enjoying some of the lowest crime rates in history right now, a huge number of people are still going back to prison.
So, let’s do the math: Enormous prison population, jaw-dropping costs (we spend more on prisons than we do on hospitals), yet little net gain of public safety. Does this make any sense?
Read the full Pew report on the increase in sentence length and prison costs here.
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The next Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners meeting is at noon on Tues., Aug. 21st at Wesley United Methodist Church, 800 East 12th.
Bring your lunch. The place and time are consistent throughout the year. The meetings are always held on the third Tuesday of the month, and always held from noon to 1:00 pm at Wesley United Methodist Church located at 800 East 12th Street in Des Moines. The location is a block west of East High School. Please contact Vi for more information.
The August meeting will focus on services provided by Broadlawns Hospital to those released from prison. Presenters are: Betty Spratt, Supervisor of Financial Counseling and Janet Metcalf, 18 year member of the Iowa House of Representatives and long time member and former chair of Broadlawns Board of Trustees.
Betty has worked in the financial side of health care since 1982, and at Broadlawns since 1989. She has worked with thousands of patients/clients helping them enroll in many different public State funded assistance programs for health care.
Janet received a Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State. She has been a business owner, State Representative where she chaired five committees. She has served on several community boards including past president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa.
Voices to be Heard is a support group for families and children of an incarcerated loved one. The group gathers to support and comfort those who know too well the grief that comes to those left behind when someone they love is incarcerated. The group meets on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at Union Park Methodist Church (East 12th & Guthrie in Des Moines) from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. The group brings in speakers, performs outreach, provide support groups and leadership classes. The next meeting will be held in September. Please watch the next JRC Newsletter for any updates. Contact Sue for more information.
Justice Reform Consortium member organizations: Iowa CURE & Iowa Coalition 4 Juvenile Justice; Friends of Iowa Women Prisoners; Trinity United Methodist Church; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Voices to be Heard; ACLU of Iowa; Social Action Committee, Des Moines Presbytery; Des Moines Chapter of WILPF; American Friends Service Committee; Plymouth Congregational Church, Board of Christian Social Action; Iowa Annual Conference, UMC; Iowa NOW and Des Moines NOW; National Association of Social Workers; Beacon of Life
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 914.1 Power of governor.
The power of the governor under the Constitution of the State of Iowa to grant a reprieve, pardon, commutation of sentence, remission of fines and forfeitures, or restoration of the rights of citizenship shall not be impaired.
 §902.2 Commutation procedure for class “A” felons.
A person who has been sentenced to life imprisonment under section 902.1 may, no more frequently than once every ten years, make an application to the governor requesting that the person’s sentence be commuted to a term of years.
 §81.10 DNA profiling after conviction, subsection 9 (investigation by the Board of Parole).
 §331.756(52). Duties of the county attorney (“Furnish, upon request of the governor, a copy of the minutes of evidence and other pertinent facts relating to an application for a pardon, reprieve, commutation”).
 §902.2 Commutation procedure for class “A” felons.
 Duties of the Parole Board (“The board of parole shall review and make recommendations to the governor regarding all applications for reprieves, pardons, commutation of sentences, remission of fines or forfeitures, or restoration of citizenship rights as required by chapter 914.”) § 904A.4(7).
 Departments of government. SECTION 1. The powers of the government of Iowa shall be divided into three separate departments – the legislative, the executive, and the judicial: and no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any function appertaining to either of the others, except in cases hereinafter expressly directed or permitted.