Excessive Sentencing Project - Iowa

Policies and rulings on lengthy imprisonment terms in Iowa.

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  • Iowa has abolished the death penalty, and also allows for parole.  
  • Iowa imposes mandatory LWOP and JLWOP. The minimum age for JLWOP is 14. 
  • Minimum age for transfer of juvenile to adult court is age 14. Iowa Code § 232.45(6)(a). 
State Constitution

Iowa Const., Art. I § 17

SEC. 17. Bail -- punishments.

Excessive bail shall not be required; excessive fines shall not be imposed, and cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted.

NOTE: While Iowa Constitution Article I, Section 17 is generally interpreted as the equivalent of the Eighth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court interprets “gross disproportionality” more broadly than the United States Supreme Court.

Sentencing Statutes
  • Sentencing Guidelines System – Iowa does not have guidelines
  • Habitual Offender Statute –  Iowa Code § 902.8 (2012)

902.8 Minimum sentence -- habitual offender.

An habitual offender is any person convicted of a class "C" or a class "D" felony, who has twice before been convicted of any felony in a court of this or any other state, or of the United States. An offense is a felony if, by the law under which the person is convicted, it is so classified at the time of the person's conviction. A person sentenced as an habitual offender shall not be eligible for parole until the person has served the minimum sentence of confinement of three years.

Case Law

General 

“A defendant may challenge an illegal sentence at any time.” State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 639 (Iowa 2012) (citingState v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 869 (Iowa 2009)); State v. Ragland, 812 N.W.2d 654, 658 (Iowa 2012).

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State Constitution 

Unless the defendant suggests a distinction between the analyses under Article I, Section 17 and the Eighth Amendment, the court will apply the Eighth Amendment analysis to the Section 17 claim.State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 882-886 (Iowa 2009); State v. Musser, 721 N.W.2d 734, 749 (Iowa 2006); See In re Detention of Garren, 620 N.W.2d 275, 280 n.1 (Iowa 2000); State v. Ostrander, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 760, 9-10 (Iowa Ct. App. July 14, 2010); State v. Jorgensen, 785 N.W.2d 708, 713 (Iowa Ct. App. 2009).

Although the Iowa Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the language of the Iowa Constitution “to expand on the personal liberties guaranteed by similar or identical provisions in the federal Constitution, [the Court has] been reluctant to exercise this authority, in part out of a desire for consistency." State v. Ramirez, 597 N.W.2d 795, 797 (Iowa 1999); State v. Quintero, 480 N.W.2d 50, 51 (Iowa 1992); State v. DeVries, 2001 Iowa App. LEXIS 330 (Iowa Ct. App. May 23, 2001). 

In general, Article I, Section 17 is interpreted as the equivalent of the Eighth Amendment. State v. Musser, 721 N.W.2d 734, 749 (Iowa 2006). However, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that “review of criminal sentences for ‘gross proportionality’ under the Iowa Constitution should not be a ‘toothless’ review and adopt a more stringent review than would be available under the Federal Constitution. State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 882-883 (Iowa 2009).

Proportionality 

Punishment may be cruel and unusual because it inflicts torture, is otherwise barbaric, or is so excessively severe it is disproportionate to the offense charged. State v. Lara, 580 N.W.2d 783, 784-85 (Iowa 1998).

In general, “a sentence that falls within the parameters of a statutorily prescribed penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.” State v. Cronkhite, 613 N.W.2d 664, 669 (Iowa 2000) (citing State v. Kyle, 271 N.W.2d 689, 693 (Iowa 1978)).

To determine whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate to the offense, the Iowa Supreme Court has adopted the Solem three-step analysis. The first step is a threshold test, requiring the court to determine whether the sentence leads to an inference of gross disproportionality. If the sentence leads to such an inference, the court must then compare the sentence to the sentences for other crimes within the jurisdiction. The court must then compare the sentence to the sentences in other jurisdictions for the same or similar crimes. If these intra and interjurisdictional analysis support the initial inference of gross disproportionality, the sentence is grossly disproportionate and thus cruel and unusual. State v. Lyle, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 617, 9-12 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012); See State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636 (Iowa 2012).

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When determining whether a sentence leads to an inference of gross disproportionality, the court should give substantial deference to the legislature and should recognize that a recidivist offender is more deserving of a harsher sentence. Additionally, the court should recognize that a sentence is only rarely grossly disproportionate for purposes of the three-factor proportionality analysis. However, unique circumstances can “converge to generate a high risk of gross disproportionality.” State v. Lyle, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 617, 9-12 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012) (quoting Bruegger 773 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009)); See State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636 (Iowa 2012).

The Iowa Supreme Court has held that a “sentence will more likely be found disproportionate to the crime where a defendant is ‘inadvertently caught by a broadly written statute.’” State v. Pearson, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 620, 9-10 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012) (quoting Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 651 (Iowa 2012)).

In some instances, offenders who are convicted of acts of lesser culpability that fall within the scope of broad criminal statutes may make an as-applied cruel and unusual punishment challenge to the sentence. State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 884 (Iowa 2009). Such a challenge is appropriate when the criminal statute makes no distinction between serial pedophiles, statutory rapists, and those convicted of incest. Id. (citing State v. Davis, 79 P.3d 64, 72-73 (Ariz. 2003)). An offender may otherwise show that he is exceptional, that the sentence was not meaningfully tailored to the offense, or that he otherwise has diminished culpability. Id; See State v. Pearson, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 620, 7-8 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012); State v. Medved, 805 N.W.2d 397 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011).

As-applied review is particularly appropriate when ususual circumstances exists, such as the “convergence of a broadly-defined criminal statute, the use of a juvenile adjudication [to enhance a] sentence, and the dramatic increase in his punishment as a result the enhancement.” State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 885 (Iowa 2009).

In general, courts do not take an offender’s age into consideration when determining the severity of a term-of-years sentence. See State v. Brustkern, 2005 Iowa App. LEXIS 188, 7 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 16, 2005) (citing State v. Laffey, 600 N.W.2d 57, 61-62 (Iowa 1999)).

However, when juveniles make cruel and unusual punishment challenges, the sentencing courts should make individualized sentencing determinations before imposing life without parole. State v. Pearson, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 620 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012).

Before the Supreme Court decided Miller, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that age should be a factor for cruel and unusual punishment under the Iowa Constitution in Bruegger. State v. Pearson, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 620 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012).

Mandatory sentences do not automatically violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Iowa Constitution. See State v. Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d 862, 882-83 (Iowa 2009) (citing State v. Phillips, 610 N.W.2d 840, 843-44 (Iowa 2000) (holding ten-year mandatory sentence for second-degree robbery does not rise to cruel and unusual punishment); August, 589 N.W.2d at 744 (finding forty-two-and-one-half-year mandatory, consecutive sentence for kidnapping in the second-degree and first-degree robbery not cruel and unusual); State v. Lara, 580 N.W.2d 783, 786 (Iowa 1998) (finding mandatory minimum sentence of over twenty-one years for first-degree robbery permissible)).

Consecutive sentencing for separate crimes does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment in Iowa. State v. Pearson, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 620, 12 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2012) (citing State v. August, 589 N.W.2d 740, 744 (Iowa 1999)).

The following cases mention both the Eighth Amendment and  Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, but do not provide any significant, separate analysis:

  • State v. Seering, 701 N.W.2d 655, 670 (Iowa 2005) –
  • State v. Phillips, 610 N.W.2d 840, 843-844 (Iowa 2000) –
  • State v. Bennett, 2012 Iowa App. LEXIS 542, 10-11 (Iowa Ct. App. July 11, 2012) –
  • State v. Kehoe, 804 N.W.2d 302 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011) –
  • State v. Lang, 808 N.W.2d 756 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011) –
  • Keene v. State, 2011 Iowa App. LEXIS 408 (Iowa Ct. App. June 15, 2011) –
  • State v. Smith, 2006 Iowa App. LEXIS 949, 3-4 (Iowa Ct. App. Aug. 9, 2006) –
  • State v. Carroll, 2005 Iowa App. LEXIS 198 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 16, 2005) –
  • State v. Mauer, 2001 Iowa App. LEXIS 291 (Iowa Ct. App. May 9, 2001) –

Leading Court Discussions of Graham and Miller   

Bonilla v. State, 791 N.W.2d 697 (Iowa, December 17, 2010) (juvenile offender convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to LWOP is squarely within Graham; the parole eligibility provision is severable so the offender will continue serving life with potential of parole.) 

State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636 (Iowa March 30, 2012) (Discussed the methodology of analyzing a challenge under Eighth Amendment; a Challenge under Eighth Amendment is analyzed in “category approach”) 

State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41(Iowa, August 16, 2013) (the court has an overview of how juveniles are treated in U.S. legal system, cruel and unusual punishment under Eighth Amendment and how cruel and unusual punishment concepts are applied to juveniles under Eighth Amendment, and held that the application of Miller is not “crime-specific” and that Miller can apply to lengthy term-of-year sentences such as 52.5-year imprisonment, including lengthy sentence as a result of aggregate sentences) 

State v. Pearson, 836 N.W.2d 88 (Iowa, August 16, 2013) (Eighth Amendment requires individualized sentence for imposition of 35 years imprisonment without possibility of parole) 

State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107 (Iowa August 16, 2013) (Miller applies retroactively to cases on direct and collateral review; LWOP for 60 years is unconstitutional) 

State v. Hoeck, 843 N.W.2d 67 (Iowa 2014) (life in prison with immediate possibility of parole does not violate federal constitution) 

State v. Lyle, 11-1339, 2014 WL 3537026 (Iowa July 18, 2014) (applying mandatory minimums to juveniles is not unconstitutional under Miller