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Questions and Answers About Iowa's Juvenile Justice System

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


What are juvenile delinquency cases?
They are cases that would be criminal cases if the person responsible was an adult.

How are juvenile delinquency cases different from adult criminal cases?
In a delinquency case, minors are not convicted of crimes and then sentenced to punishment.

Minors are instead "adjudicated delinquent." This means a judge heard all the evidence and found the minor did violate the law of which they were accused.

After being found delinquent, a minor is not "sentenced." Instead, there is a "disposition" hearing. The court can order probation or placement in foster care, residential treatment, or a state institution. The goal is providing services to prevent future delinquencies.

Are some violations of the law not handled by juvenile court?
Yes. The juvenile court does not decide traffic or tobacco offenses, or violations of hunting, fishing, snow mobile or curfew laws, as long as they are simple misdemeanors. The magistrate court decides these types of cases.

Can a minor ever be sent to adult court?
Yes. There may be a "waiver" hearing in the juvenile court to decide if the minor should be tried as an adult. This may take place if a case involves violent criminal behavior and the minor is at least 14 years old.

A minor 16 or over who commits a "forcible felony" will automatically be tried in adult court. Under Iowa law, forcible felonies are generally violent crimes. Examples include murder, voluntary manslaughter, sexual assault, and assault causing serious injury.

If a child goes directly to adult court, the judge may move a minor back to juvenile court after a hearing.

Does a minor have a right to a lawyer?
Yes. A minor has a right to a lawyer in all steps of the juvenile case.
If the child or the child's parents cannot afford to pay for the child's lawyer, the court will appoint one.

What are the steps in a juvenile delinquency case?
The first step is "intake." A juvenile court officer collects details and records from parties involved in the case.

In some cases, the child may be taken into custody by the police due to the nature of the delinquent act or if the child is a runaway.

Either the case may go to "informal adjustment" or the juvenile officer may file a delinquency petition.

Once a delinquency petition is filed, there is an "adjudication" hearing.
At this hearing, the judge decides if the minor did violate the law of which they areaccused. If not, the case is dismissed.

If the judge finds that the minor did violate the law, there will be a "disposition" hearing.

The court can order probation, treatment, placement, restitution or other relief.

What is Intake?
This is a screening of the case by a juvenile court officer. This may be based on a complaint to the court, a police report, or because a minor was arrested.

The intake officer may:

  • Interview the person who made the complaint (if any), the victim, and the witnesses of the alleged delinquent act;
  • Check court records, police records, and other public records;
  • Hold conferences with the child and the child's parent or parents, guardian or custodian. These conferences can be to interview everyone and talk about how to resolve the complaint;
  • Look at any physical evidence relevant to the case; and
  • Interview any other people in order to decide if filing a delinquency petition is in the best interests of the child and the community.

Next, the intake officer will decide if there is enough information to file a petition and take the case to the next step.

What is Informal Adjustment?
This is a way to resolve a complaint without going to court.

The child and the child's parents must sign an agreement.

The child must admit involvement in the alleged delinquent act.

The agreement may:

  • Require a minor to be supervised by a juvenile probation officer;
  • Require the minor to get treatment or other services;
  • Prohibit a minor from driving for a while;
  • Require the minor to do community service; or
  • Require the minor to pay restitution to the victim or to the court.

If the case cannot be resolved with an informal adjustment, the county attorney will file a petition.

What is Adjudication?
This is a court hearing to decide if the evidence supports allegations in the complaint and the petition.

The county attorney represents the state and the child's attorney represents the child.

Both attorneys present evidence to show their side of the case.

The judge will decide if the minor committed the alleged juvenile act. If not, the case will be dismissed. If yes, the case will go on to disposition.

What is Disposition?
This is the hearing where the court decides what kind of treatment or consequences are best for the child.

The court can order probation. A minor on probation is under the supervision of a juvenile court officer. The child will have terms and conditions for probation which are specific to their case. If the minor successfully completes probation, the case is closed. If not, the court can make a new disposition order.

The court can also order placement. The minor may be placed in:

  • Foster care;
  • A residential treatment program;
  • A state institution that treats mental illness; or
  • A state training school;

The child may also be released into the care of a parent or guardian. This may not be the same parent who had custody of the child before the juvenile case began.

The court can also order the child's parents to take part in education or treatment programs.


Last Review and Update: Nov 02, 2020
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