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Iowa still sending juveniles to prison

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | NOVEMBER 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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Within the past few decades, 22 states around the nation have adjusted their laws to help prevent juveniles from being tried as adults to enhance their chances at better lives.

Iowa is not one of those states, and officials say while the current system can be beneficial to juveniles, it may be subject to change.

“The theory in this state is that if you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time,” Sen. Thomas Courtney, D-Burlington. “When someone does what is considered an adult crime, such as an armed robbery or murder, the feeling among the legislators has always been they should be punished as an adult.”

He said he believes Iowa’s prison system may not do the best job with placing juveniles in the correct facilities. The judicial system takes numerous factors into consideration when determining whether a person should be tried as an adult in court, he said. 

Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia, along with 11 other states, have passed laws to keep young offenders out of adult correctional facilities.  Additionally, eight other states have passed laws that alter a mandatory minimum sentencing for juveniles charged as adults.  However, many states in the Midwest, including Iowa, are not part of those states making the change. 

Some state officials say the current judicial system in Iowa is designed to punish juveniles who commit serious crimes — which may include arson, murder, manslaughter, or armed robbery — with the same punishments as adults.

“For those lesser offenses and those younger offenders, it is really designed to rehabilitate and make sure that our youth are put on the right track to have a productive future,” Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said.  “I think, generally, it is a pretty decent system.”

There are 16 juveniles now serving time in state prisons, according to the Iowa Justice Data Warehouse. Baltimore said this number isn’t a major concern of his.

A small portion of the young criminals who serve in state prisons are usually 16 to 17 years old.

Warden Nick Ludwick of the Iowa State Penitentiary said he has only seen a small number of juveniles enter the doors in Fort Madison.

Ludwick said young offenders don’t pose much of a safety concern because the court analyzes them based on past criminal records before they are assigned to adult prisons.

“It is not a vote on our behalf, and there is nothing on our behalf that is really important other than that we ensure they are safe in our facility,” Ludwick said.  “My job, and others’ jobs as wardens, is to ensure that we can protect the public and we can advance our mission of successful re-entry to prevent victimization for our public staff and defenders.”

When offenders under 18 are convicted of a crime, the following areas are taken into consideration before a juvenile is tried as an adult: the seriousness of the offense, the safety of the community, the child’s history, and an assessment determining if it is possible to rehabilitate the child in juvenile court.

Candice Bennett, the chief juvenile court officer in Iowa’s 6th Judicial District, said many young offenders are provided with a chance of an assessment.

“I think a change in the law would only affect a small portion of kids,” she said. “Most kids have a hearing in court determining if they should be treated as adults.”

Bennett said she has not seen many young adults from juvenile systems move into the adult prisons, and most of the offenders in the Linn and Johnson Counties area are young people who act impulsively but are not criminals at heart.

“In terms of all kids, very few of them end up with adult prison records,” Bennett said. “Most of our kids are immature but are not criminal-thinking kids. If children are at high risk of re-offending, we work very hard to try to help those children change their behavior and attitudes.” 


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