Iowa Supreme Court urged to ban criminal prosecution of 13-year-olds in adult court

By: Rox Laird on November 10th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court is being asked to take another step toward protecting juvenile offenders from prison sentences designed for adults in an appeal set for argument Tuesday.

In State v. Noah Crooks, the appellant argues that the State cannot legally or constitutionally prosecute a 13-year-old accused murderer in adult court.

The Iowa Supreme Court has handed down a series of rulings on juvenile sentencing following decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court based on evidence that juvenile offenders’ characters are not fully formed and are thus less culpable than adult offenders.

The Iowa Court’s rulings include a 2014 decision (State v. Lyle) that, in the case of juveniles, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum prison sentences prescribed by the Legislature violate the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Eighth Amendment.

Crooks urges the Court to take that ruling one more step and rule that children under the age of 14 cannot be prosecuted in adult court.

Noah Crooks was found guilty by a Mitchell County jury of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his mother. He was 13 at the time of the crime, and he was waived by a juvenile court judge into adult court to be tried as a “youthful offender.” After he turned 18, following his commitment to the State Training School, Crooks was sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

In a legal brief submitted to the Court, Crooks’ counsel recites the Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings on juvenile sentencing that have embraced the U.S. Supreme Court’s reasoning and built upon it.

“Crooks requests this Court take the next logical step and define at what age a child may be subject to adult prosecution and punishment,” his appellate attorney argues. “The waiver of and sentencing of a thirteen year old child violates Article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. This Court should adopt a categorical bar on imposing punishment upon a child under the age of fourteen in adult court.”

The State, in a brief filed by Attorney General Tom Miller, responds that waiving a juvenile to adult court is not, by itself, punishment under the Constitution; it is just a “change in forum” where guilt is then established. Then the juvenile receives a deferred judgment until age 18, and during that time the state has the opportunity to rehabilitate the offender for possible release.

“Adult punishment would be imposed only when the child turns eighteen and only if the juvenile system has been unable to rehabilitate the child,” the State argues. “Therefore, the waiver decision does not impose ‘punishment’ for the purpose of Article I, section 17 [of the Iowa Constitution].”

The oral argument in State v. Crooks is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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