DES MOINES — Rep. Dustin Hite says he usually knows where he stands on a bill after reading it.
However, after reading House File 377 and hearing nearly an hour of sometimes emotional comments on it Monday, the New Sharon Republican was unsure whether he was for a proposed pathway to release for prisoners who have served at least 25 years of life sentences for Class A felonies.
Under current law, unless defendants were younger than 18 at the time of committing an offense for which they were found guilty of a Class A felony, they are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole unless their sentence is commuted by the governor.
HF 377 would create a process for reviewing the life sentence of a prisoner who has served at least 25 years for a Class A felony to determine whether their imprisonment should be commuted to a term of years with the possibility of parole.
Those prisoners have committed the most heinous crimes. “That’s why they are sentenced to life without parole,” Jessica Reynolds, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, told a House Judiciary subcommittee. Class A felonies include first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault with injury and kidnapping with injury or torture.
Iowa’s “life means life” sentencing for Class A felons was the alternative when the Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1965, said Kelly Meyers, a lobbyist for county attorneys.
“These are not crimes of mistake. They are serious crimes,” she said.
From the viewpoint of county attorneys, the public would not be served by releasing them from incarcerations. Meyers could not imagine telling a family that the person who murdered their loved one would be eligible for release after the prosecutor said that person would never be paroled.
However, Chuck Hurley, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who led the House Judiciary Committee the last time it advanced a death penalty bill, said the purpose of government is to “punish evil and commend the good.”
“I think this bill does that,” said Hurley, now with The Family Leader, which is registered as “undecided.”
If the bill is advanced, victims should have input into the commutation process, said Hurley, who served on the Board of Parole.
“Mercy can and should triumph over judgment, but only after careful examination,” he said.
The subcommittee also heard from Blair Greiman, who as a 16-year-old high school junior in 1981 kidnapped, sexually assaulted and stabbed a young woman. Greiman won his release after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that life without parole was unconstitutional for juveniles found guilty of non-homicide crimes. Greiman’s victim survived his attack.
Now in his 50s, Greiman operates a business offering woodworking — a skill learned while serving time at the Anamosa State Penitentiary — in his hometown of Garner in northern Iowa.
Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, who has worked in prison ministries, said the bill doesn’t call for releasing all Class A felons, but provides a path for the review of their cases.
“It doesn’t say every case, but those who have gone through real change,” he said. “Some of these people have been transformed. I believe that people can and do change ... and do deserve a look.”
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Hite plans to discuss HF 377 further with subcommittee members Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, and Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City.
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