Bill Would Create Pathway To Release For Iowans Sentenced To Life Without Parole
State lawmakers heard at times emotional testimony Monday on a bill that would create the possibility of parole for some Iowans serving a life sentence in prison. Currently, those convicted of the most serious Class A felonies are sentenced to life without parole and aren’t released except if granted a pardon or commutation by the governor.
Blair Greiman thought he would spend the rest of his life in prison, after being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for kidnapping, raping and stabbing a woman when he was 16.
But after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found that the sentence of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide is unconstitutional, Greiman was able to demonstrate his rehabilitation in the three decades since his crime and successfully appealed for his release.
Speaking to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Monday, Greiman said that Iowans serving life sentences for crimes they committed as adults should also have a shot at a second chance.
“I know a number of people in prison who cannot and should not ever be let out. There’s no doubt about that,” Greiman said. “But there are also some fellas there that are…have grown up and matured into very kind, warmhearted people who would embrace the opportunity that I received with the same sense of gratitude.”
Tim Diesburg, who worked as a correctional officer at the Iowa Department of Corrections for three decades, agrees. Diesburg said he worked alongside Greiman for many of those years and is amazed by what some “lifers” have accomplished behind bars.
“There are some lifers out there doing time today with double master’s degrees, PhD’s, associate’s degrees,” Diesburg said. “Some of these people I’ve known so well, I’ve known them better than my own family.”
Currently, Iowans sentenced to life without parole can apply for a commutation from the governor every 10 years, after they’ve served at least 25 years. Under the bill sponsored by Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, those individuals can apply every three years, so long as they’re in a minimum security facility.
"I am thankful that God gave me mercy. I received a second chance. I’m no longer the man I used to be. And I believe that people can and do change. I believe in the dignity of human life and that people deserve a look when they’ve gone through that change."-Rep. Terry Baxter R-Garner
The bill would also establish a committee, made up of members appointed by the governor, who would review the cases, interview the applicants and make recommendations to the governor based on a host of factors, including the age and maturity of the offender at the time of the crime, whether they were under the influence of drugs or were themselves a victim of abuse, as well as how they’ve comported themselves in prison, their progress on rehabilitation and education, and their acceptance of responsibility.
“When someone commits a crime under the influence of alcohol or drugs or coming from a background of abuse themselves, they’re not in their right mind,” Baxter told the subcommittee. “There are many people who in the process of being incarcerated go through such a change in their life, rehabilitation and transformation, they are no longer the same people…that committed that crime.”
Baxter says not all of those convicted of the state’s most serious crimes deserve a chance at release, but he says some do.
“I am thankful that God gave me mercy. I received a second chance. I’m no longer the man I used to be,” Baxter said. “And I believe that people can and do change. I believe in the dignity of human life and that people deserve a look when they’ve gone through that change.”
"We believe that lessening that would be a mistake because the category of Class A felonies that this applies to are the most heinous crimes [...] These are not crimes of mistake. These are intentional crimes."-Kelly Meyers, Iowa County Attorneys Association
Under Baxter’s bill, the committee’s recommendation can be forwarded both to the governor and to the district court where the applicant was first sentenced. That court would then review the sentence and reaffirm it or replace it with life with the possibility of parole.
The bill would also create an expedited review process for those who are “medically incapacitated” or are dying of a terminal illness.
The proposal has won bipartisan support from a somewhat unlikely group of conservative and liberal lawmakers, including Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.
Those advocating against the bill include the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association and the Iowa County Attorneys Association.
Kelly Meyers of the ICAA told lawmakers Monday that the bill would “undo justice” for victims of crimes, saying the sentence of life without parole is meant as an alternative to the death penalty.
“We believe that lessening that would be a mistake because the category of Class A felonies that this applies to are the most heinous crimes,” Meyers said. “These are not crimes of mistake. These are intentional crimes.”
"Nothing in the bill releases anyone. But it does give those important decision-makers a tool, a layer to ensure that we’re releasing the right people."-Tim Diesburg, former correctional officer
Still, some victims of crimes and individuals representing them advocated for the bill. Sue Hutchins is the founder of Living Beyond the Bars and Iowa CURE, organizations which provide emotional support and reentry assistance to incarcerated individuals and their loved ones, and advocate for criminal justice reform. She is also a survivor of incest.
“With all due respect to victims, being a victim myself, I know the value of forgiveness. And I know the value of not holding on to anger forever. And I know the value of not having to worry about keeping someone in prison for the rest of their life and thinking that that is going to make me safer or make me better,” Hutchins. “It would not, in my case and in my family’s case.”
Diesburg, the former correctional officer, made clear the bill would not automatically grant parole to anyone, or even guarantee parole to anyone.
“Nothing in the bill releases anyone,” said Diesburg. “But it does give those important decision-makers a tool, a layer to ensure that we’re releasing the right people.”
No vote was taken on the bill on Monday, with the three members of the subcommittee saying they needed to have “further conversations”.
“I can’t think of any other time where I’ve gotten to the end of a subcommittee and I didn’t know where I was going to come down on a bill,” said Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, the subcommittee chair. “I think that shows the importance of this but also the gravity of this.”