Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday used his constitutional power of executive clemency to keep 38 inmates in prison who were convicted of killing people while they were juveniles.
His decision, made in consultation with the Iowa attorney general's office and families of crime victims, follows a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court, in a 5-4 ruling in an Alabama case, concluded that laws giving life sentences without possible parole to teens convicted of murder violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
In response, Branstad signed orders on Monday to commute the sentences of each of the 38 inmates to life behind bars with the possibility of parole only after a minimum of 60 years in prison. None of the inmates will be eligible for release until they are well into their 70s, he said.
There is more than a little irony in using the commutation power to keep murderers in prison longer, but it is not unprecedented. In 1972, most states did not have life-without-parole as an alternative to the death penalty. When the Supreme Court threw out all existing death sentences in Furman v. Georgia, the Governor of Tennessee commuted death sentences in that state to 99 years, ensuring in practice that the murderers would never get out. The Supreme Court upheld this move in Rose v. Hodges, 423 U.S. 19 (1975).