cedar rapids / iowa city criminal defense

The American Bill of Rights (1789) currently on display at the National Archives. Image at Wikicommons and Wikipedia with no known copyright. 

211 Third Ave SW Suite 1 Cedar Rapids Iowa 52404     319-389-1889 

Juvenile sentencing options evolving for Iowans

by David Cmelik


The law on juvenile delinquency is evolving rapidly in the nation and in the State of Iowa. Both the United States Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme Court have recognized that the “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” of youths “often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.” State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 60 (Iowa 2013)(quoting Johnson v. Texas, 509 U.S. 350, 367 (U.S. 1993)). Youth is “more than chronology” and the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment requires “meaningful” but not necessarily “automatic” opportunities for release. Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (U.S. 2012)(“We therefore hold that HN15 LEdHN[15] [15] the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders”). The Iowa Supreme Court has similarly held that sentencing courts must in the most serious cases consider sentences for juvenile offenders include meaningful opportunities for parole. Youth is a mitigating factor although it is not an excuse. The Iowa Supreme Court went on to hold that “the typical characteristics of youth, which include immaturity, impetuosity, and poor risk assessment, are to be regarded as mitigating, not aggravating factors” State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 75 (Iowa 2013). It seems like the pendulum might be swinging on the get-tough-on-juvenile-crime attitude of the 1980s.  Moreover, a recent statutory change to Iowa Code 901.5(14) —promoted in part by juvenile court officers lobbying at the Legislature—allows: “Notwithstanding any provision in section 907.3 or any other provision of law prescribing a   mandatory minimum sentence for the offense, if the defendant is guilty of a public offense other than a class “A” felony, and was under the age of eighteen at the time the offense was committed, the court may suspend the sentence in whole or in part, including any mandatory minimum sentence, or with the consent of the defendant, defer judgment or sentence, and place the defendant on probation upon such conditions as the court may require.” For juveniles charged with adult offenses, this opens up a range of sentencing possibilities previously unavailable—sentences that would have before resulted in long, mandatory prison sentences.  While this is a positive development, it makes it less likely that courts will “reverse waive” juvenile defendants to juvenile court. Prosecutors will invariably argue that a juvenile charged as an adult can argue for “any legal sentence.” Juvenile court options are more rehabilitative and less punitive than their adult counterparts. Also, juvenile court proceedings allow for the possibility of discharge, dismissal, or expungement in the event of adjudication. Though more can be done, these developments are positive—and the Iowa Supreme Court appears from its language in recent decisions to continue the trend. Stay tuned.