Navigating the Iowa Juvenile Justice System

Being a criminal defendant is never easy. The Iowa criminal justice system is a finely tuned machine, with prosecutors who are able to quickly and effectively assemble cases against defendants. Many criminal defendants struggle to obtain representation and find themselves playing catch-up in a system that leaves little room for error or misunderstanding.

For juvenile defendants and their parents, the Iowa juvenile justice system can seem even more intimidating. While parents may be reeling from the emotional shock of discovering that their child is facing jail time and a criminal history, they must also attempt to navigate the opaque juvenile justice process.

When Do Cedar Rapids Minors Enter the Juvenile Justice Process?

In Iowa, most minors who are charged with committing a criminal offense will have their cases heard through Iowa’s juvenile delinquency system. The juvenile delinquency system considers misdemeanor and felony offenses – with the exception of issues such as traffic tickets, violations of hunting and fishing licenses, and tobacco offenses.

While minors are by default sent through the juvenile justice system rather than typical criminal court, minors can be treated as adults in certain circumstances. Any minor over 16 in Iowa who commits a forcible felony such as murder, manslaughter, or sexual assault may be tried as an adult. A minor over 14 who commits a violent crime may also be tried if his or her juvenile status is “waived.”

How Does the Juvenile Delinquency Process Work?

When a minor is arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, he or she will be visited by a juvenile court officer who will complete an intake. An intake is a comprehensive investigation into the crime that may have been committed and the juvenile’s overall home and family situation. Intakes can involve:

  • Lengthy interviews with the minor and the minor’s family about the criminal complaint alleged
  • Interviewing other witnesses and victims to the criminal activity
  • Reviewing all physical evidence and records related to the criminal activity
  • Interviewing other individuals related to or supporting the child to determine what is in the child’s best interest.

After the intake is completed, the juvenile court officer will decide whether a juvenile delinquency petition should be filed or if the child’s case should be handled through informal adjustment. During this time, the child may be held in police custody if that is deemed necessary based on the crime allegedly committed.

Informal adjustment is a process where a criminal complaint can be handled outside of court. Typically, a minor must acknowledge that he or she has committed the crime at issue, and the minor and parents must enter into an agreement where they commit to take certain actions.

While it varies in every case, these agreements can require the child:

  • to work with a probation officer for a period of time,
  • pay restitution to the victim,
  • obtain mental health treatment, or
  • complete community service.

The Adjudication Process

If the juvenile court officer decides to file a delinquency petition, the case will proceed to an adjudication hearing before a judge. At the adjudication hearing, the judge will hear all of the evidence obtained by the juvenile court officer and consider whether the juvenile is guilty of the criminal act at issue.

During an adjudication, the state will be the party that presents evidence against the minor. Juvenile offenders may obtain their own attorneys, or the Iowa State Public Defender may represent the minor. The minor’s attorney may present evidence on behalf of the minor and argue for the minor’s acquittal.

At the end of the adjudication hearing, if the judge finds that the minor is not guilty, the case will be dismissed. If the judge finds the minor guilty, the case will proceed to a disposition hearing.

Punishments for Juvenile Offenders

At a disposition hearing, the judge will consider what punishment to award to the minor. Punishment can vary widely depending on the crime committed. Punishments may be:

  • probation,
  • time in juvenile detention,
  • time in prison, or
  • removal from the home.

If probation is mandated, the minor will be required to agree to the conditions of the probation, and to check in regularly with a juvenile court officer. If the minor completes the probation successfully, then the case will be closed. If not, the court will hold a second disposition hearing and consider a new punishment.

Where the court feels that the minor has underlying issues that may need to be addressed, or concerns about whether the minor may be a danger to those around him or her – the court may order placement outside of the home.

This can include placement at a residential treatment facility, a mental hospital, a state institution, or even foster care. These types of placements are more likely to occur when there are underlying family issues that may be contributing to the minor’s delinquent conduct.

Parents should also be aware that a disposition hearing can impose requirements on the parents in addition to the minor. For example, parents may be required to attend certain trainings, to work with a family therapist, or to attend educational classes.

An Iowa Criminal Defense Attorney Representing Your Child in the Juvenile Process

Obtaining quality legal representation for your child during the juvenile delinquency process is just as important as obtaining a lawyer in an adult criminal proceeding. Depending on the circumstances of your child’s arrest, you may need to fight to have evidence excluded or to have alternative perspectives considered. It is always important to remember that you must fight for your child’s best interests.

For parents of juveniles who have been arrested, the juvenile delinquency process can raise the additional threat of having your own parenting skills questioned or attacked. You could end up having your child removed from home because of others’ beliefs that the environment is not safe.

If you have a child who has recently been arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, or you are currently involved in the adjudication or disposition process, it is important that you find an attorney to fight for your child. Criminal defense lawyer Jonathan D. Schmidt can help you and your family navigate the juvenile delinquency process –  and work to protect you from family separation. For more information, contact us online or at (319) 423-3031.