Mimesis Law
30 April 2017

Squeezing Blood from Juvenile Stones: Iowa’s Homicide Restitution Law

February 20, 2017 (Fault Lines)–The Iowa Supreme Court just handed down a decision[1] in State v. Richardson that perfectly illustrates the occasional disconnect between the law and reality. Daimonay Richardson was convicted of second degree murder that she committed in 2013, when she was fifteen years old. As part of the conviction, Richardson became subject to Iowa Code 910.3b, which states:

In all criminal cases in which the offender is convicted of a felony in which the act or acts committed by the offender caused the death of another person […] the court shall also order the offender to pay at least one hundred fifty thousand dollars in restitution to the victim’s estate[.]

Richardson was sentenced to 50 years in prison with 25 years suspended, but with no mandatory minimum. She is currently scheduled for release in 2025. Richardson challenged the $150,000 restitution amount, but it was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The constitutional aspect of the argument revolved around the interpretation of Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, which is identical to the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights:

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

The Court drew a distinction between the “excessive fines” and the “cruel and unusual punishment” clauses of the article, holding that a monetary punishment like the $150,000 restitution was not “cruel and unusual punishment,” since that clause only covered physical punishments like incarceration. The Court then turned to a discussion of whether or not $150,000 was an “excessive fine.”[2] This is where the Iowa Supreme Court swerves off into fantasyland. Parsing carefully:

No court, to our knowledge, has applied Miller to fines or restitution.

So far, so good… though, this Court (at least in Iowa) is the final word on these matters, so they could have chosen to do so, had they been inclined.

Thus, being incarcerated and owing a restitution debt are simply not comparable. One is a matter of liberty, the other a financial obligation.

Except, half of Richardson’s 50 year sentence was suspended, and payment of her restitution is presumably a condition of her parole… meaning that if she can’t meet the payment plan, it’s possible she could go back to prison.

Richardson makes a broad statement that “juvenile offenders are not in the same position as adult offenders to afford restitution payments due to an inability to achieve a comparable level of earning capacity.” However, Richardson cites no data for this assertion. In fact, juvenile offenders like Richardson could be in a better position than comparable adult offenders to repay $150,000 restitution because of their younger age and the shorter period for which they will be incarcerated.

This is asinine. Earlier in the opinion, the Court notes that Richardson was the product of:

transgenerational family dysfunction, residential transience, sexual assault, early teen onset of alcohol and drug abuse, and victimization in a predatory relationship with the codefendant.

Richardson was locked up at age 15, and assuming all goes well, she’ll be released at age 27, having spent the bulk of her adolescence and early adulthood behind bars. When she gets out, she’ll have to find a place to live, feed herself, pay her bills, and do all the other things it takes to stay alive with a murder conviction hanging around her neck, which means that it will be pretty tough for her to find work. Fair enough, she did that to herself. And the Court’s decision, which boils down to “it’s not an excessive fine because we say it’s not,” isn’t even the primary problem. After all, it’s not the Court’s job “to say what the law is.”

The primary problem is that the law is stupid. It’s one of those feel-good pieces of legislation that makes it looks like the Iowa General Assembly is doing “something” to protect the families of murder victims, while actually doing nothing. President Trump could order a platoon of Marines to cross the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat, land in Shanghai, march to Beijing and raise the American flag over the Forbidden City.

That’s well within his constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief. But if he were to actually order such a thing, the leathernecks would have as much chance of succeeding as a juvenile murderer coming up with $150,000 she doesn’t have, and will never be able to earn.

[1] There were actually two cases; the companion case was State v. Breeden.

[2] Notably, Richardson did not challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory $150,000 for all defendants, only juveniles. The challenge was based on the United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama (which held that mandatory life sentence for juvenile defendants was an Eighth Amendment violation) and its Iowa progeny.

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