Another step toward justice

Iowa Supreme Court says juveniles can’t sentenced to life without possibility of parole

As more fallacies of the nation’s “tough on crime” era are exposed, juvenile justice must continue to evolve.

On May 27, the Iowa Supreme Court once again stood on the right side of history. But this case, unlike same-sex marriage, produced only minor ripples within the public consciousness.

Perhaps this was because the opinion arrived before a three-day weekend. Or maybe it was because the ruling concerned people we’ve been told are lost causes.

Regardless, I spent most of the day reading and digesting the split ruling and its companion dissents and concurring opinions. It took time to absorb that no Iowa juvenile offender will ever again be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Our nation is finally making significant and meaningful strides beyond the aberrant 1980s false dichotomy of juvenile justice either being adult punishment or “a slap on the wrist,” and Iowa is leading the way.

“In short, we are asking the sentencer to do the impossible, namely, to determine whether the offender is ‘irretrievably corrupt’ at a time when even trained professionals with years of clinical experience would not attempt to make such a determination,” Justice Brent Appel wrote.

At the crux of the Court’s opinion is a biological truth: The human brain continues to develop throughout adolescence, with the prefrontal cortex — responsible for executive function and complex reasoning — not fully developing until the mid-20s. For many decades, even before the science was clear, the nation’s juvenile justice system acknowledged this difference too.

In 1909, Judge Julian Mack proposed a juvenile offender be treated “as a wise and merciful father handles his own child.” Such offenders were viewed first as children, and informal juvenile courts aimed for rehabilitation.

That changed in 1967 when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling decided youthful offenders had the same rights afforded to criminal defendants. In a dissent, Justice Potter Stewart expressed concern the decision would “convert a juvenile proceeding into a criminal prosecution,” noting intent of the juvenile system was not to punish, but to “correct a condition” and meet a “responsibility to the child.”

Too soon Stewart’s predictions came true.

When juvenile crime rates spiked in the mid-1980s, politicians decried rehabilitation a sweeping failure. It no longer worked, they said, because existing young offenders were an entirely different caliber.

By the mid-1990s a Princeton professor who would later lead President George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives described these youngsters as “superpredators” who were “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” and held “absolutely no respect for human life.”

Nevermind the juvenile crime rate had been steadily decreasing in the years proceeding those statements — the “tough on crime” era reached its apex. This was no longer a nation with a responsibility to children, it was a nation that feared children.

State lawmakers, including those in Iowa, passed reactionary “adult crime, adult time” laws.

Yet, in what must be one of the best examples of irony, the professor who coined the “superpredator” terminology recanted his assertion in a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief in the case that provided the foundation for the Iowa Court’s recent decision.

Research, the brief noted, shows the laws passed “had no material effects on the subsequent decrease in crime rates,” yet nearly all remain.

Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in his concurring opinion, “While we strive to uphold the constitutionality of a statute when possible, we do not follow this approach by lowering our expectations for justice or accepting the imperfections we discover as an inevitable part of justice.”

Providing juveniles the possibility of parole, and presenting that possibility at a time when society is best able to ascertain character, isn’t being soft on crime. It does acknowledge the same boundary of childhood society has developed for nearly every other purpose.

The Iowa Court, spurred by national decisions and disappointingly ineffective legislative and executive branches, has pushed the window open a crack. Heads cleared by fresh air, we no longer can be duped by a manufactured moral panic into believing children who do bad things are and always will be bad people.

Nestling hope alongside accountability isn’t dismissing crime victims, but acknowledging biological reality.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally appeared in The Gazette on June 5, 2016. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette