Campaign Says Juveniles Need Better Access to Quality Legal Counsel

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OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee talks about the importance of strong juvenile defense at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the National Juvenile Defense Center on May 16, 2016.

Photos by Sarah Barr

OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee talks about the importance of strong juvenile defense at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the National Juvenile Defense Center on May 16, 2016.

WASHINGTON — The National Juvenile Defender Center on Monday launched a campaign to improve access to quality legal counsel for juveniles in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

During the next year, the center will urge individuals and organization to sign on to a statement of principles that supporters say will help fulfill the promise of the high court’s 1967 In re Gault decision.

The principles include making every child eligible for a publicly-funded defense and improving training for attorneys.

In Gault, the Supreme Court said young people in juvenile court have many of the same rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to counsel. But juveniles do not always have access to a lawyer, let alone quality representation in the nation’s 1 million annual juvenile delinquency cases, say the campaign’s supporters.

Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the National Juvenile Defense Center, moderates a panel discussion at the launch of Gault at 50, an NJDC campaign to improve juvenile defense on May 16, 2016.

Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the National Juvenile Defense Center, moderates a panel discussion at the launch of Gault at 50, an NJDC campaign to improve juvenile defense.

Juveniles too often are questioned by police and enter guilty pleas in court without a lawyer and have no one to investigate their case or understand whether a plea disposition is appropriate, said Kim Dvorchak, executive director of NJDC.

“That’s not justice and it’s certainly not representation. It’s an assembly line process taking place across this country,” she said.

She added that there’s too little data about how many juveniles are getting quality representation, a fact that obscures the problem for policymakers and the public.

The campaign also will release social media toolkits and “Know Your Rights” materials to help local communities build support for better representation. The goal is to spread awareness that can be a platform for policy change that ensures quality representation for every juvenile, said Dvorchak.

[Related: Los Angeles Board Votes to End Solitary for Juveniles]

Dozens of groups have signed onto the statement of principles, such as the Juvenile Law Center, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and the Sentencing Project.

Robert L. Listenbee, administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, applauded the initiative. He said only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer, according to a 2003 OJJDP survey.

“The message for us is clear: We have a lot more to do before we can truly fulfill the promise of Gault,” he said. Listenbee stressed the importance of involving all of the juvenile justice system’s players, including prosecutors, to improve youth’s access to quality defense.

Jim St. Germain, board member at the National Juvenile Defender Center, talks about the role juvenile defenders played in his life at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the NJDC on May 16, 2016.

Jim St. Germain, board member at the National Juvenile Defender Center, talks about the role juvenile defenders played in his life at the launch of Gault at 50, a campaign by the NJDC.

Jim St. Germain, a board member at NJDC and co-founder of the mentoring group Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow Inc., said juvenile defenders were critical for him when he had run-ins with the juvenile justice system as a teenager. Their support helped put him on a path toward a successful adulthood.

When he talks to other young people, he said they often say they felt like they had no voice in the justice system. Defense attorneys can help change that for young people, he said.

“I was very fortunate and part of my fortune came from having that legal representation we’ve been talking about, having attorneys who really were invested in me and my well-being, not just the docket number I had,” he said.

This story has been updated.

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2 thoughts on “Campaign Says Juveniles Need Better Access to Quality Legal Counsel

  1. I am a public defender who works in Eddy County, NM. The judges here are very conservative and do not seem to take into consideration a juvenile’s lack of maturity, intelligence and, education. Per the US Supreme Court, children are not be held to the reasonable person standard but, rather, a reasonable juvenile standard. . We will just have to continue our attempts to educate the judiciary and our communities. With children (like all other persons) there must be an eternal vigilance to protect their constitutional rights through competent representation and, diligent and vigorous advocacy.

  2. I agree fully. My 9 year old son was charged with rape. in 1998. They said he would come off the state registry in 15 years if we took a plea bargain. Well he is still on that registry as of 2016. They will not take him off. He was a child. He has a wife now, with a child of his own. He was told that he can not be around his own child. They have bought a home and live in it together, hoping he does not get in trouble. I could not afford a decent lawyer, so this is what happen. I was also told by the state prosecutor that in a few years they would drop his level to one from two. They did not. I was lied to about everything just to take the plea. I am heart broken for my son. I feel so guilty that this happen. I could not do anything to help him. My son did not even realize he had been arrested and why. He was only 9 years old. I wish someone could help him. He has graduated from school and works in construction, at the same company for almost 10 years. He bought a home and has a son. Never any trouble has he been in. He is a great man and father. He works hard. Thank you