Where is Due Process in Juvenile Court?

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“They can’t do that!”

This quickly became my mantra when I started as a juvenile defender nearly a year ago.

My colleagues heard it so often they joked about recording me and just playing it back while I was observing court proceedings so that I wouldn’t have to speak. Unfamiliar with the differences between how the criminal justice system treats juvenile and adult offenders, I was clearly unprepared for some of the things I witnessed when I first arrived in juvenile court.

You see, juvenile courts are quasi-criminal, meaning many of the aspects I expected to see in a criminal court are present, but the result of juvenile delinquency proceedings is supposed to be more rehabilitative than punitive, and “in the best interest of the child.”

What I learned this to mean is that prosecutors, judges, and a state’s department of juvenile justice have much more latitude to make recommendations for a child’s “best interests.”  Because of this latitude, I have actually heard a judge say, “Don’t even think about requesting bond until you tell us where the weapon is,” at a detention hearing.

What happened to the presumption of innocence, or the right to avoid self-incrimination?  Decidedly, this judge believed it to be in the child’s best interest to explain what had happened, even if doing so would implicate the child’s own involvement.

While I was merely observing the hearing and was not this child’s defense attorney, it was all I could do not to jump out of my chair and yell “you can’t do that!” This is just one instance I have seen where a child’s “best interests” obviously diverge from his or her “legal interests,” which makes juvenile delinquency actions particularly challenging to navigate.

While juvenile courts are arguably intended to rehabilitate and treat juvenile offenders rather than punish them, all too often I see blatant disregard for Constitutional rights during juvenile proceedings under the guise of acting in the “best interest of the child.”

Why is it that courts are willing to downplay or outright bypass the rights meant to protect alleged juvenile offenders? Is it because the words “guilty” and “conviction” have been swapped for the words “delinquent” and “adjudication” so that the outcome sounds less devastating?

No child I have represented who has been sent to juvenile detention has suffered any less disruption to his life because of this word-play.

Recently, public defender offices in Georgia that represent juveniles have been asked to comment on the potential financial and operational impact of the new proposed juvenile code provision providing for the appointment of an attorney for each child prior to a detention hearing.

While I agree that a child should have access to representation when his liberty is at stake, I can’t help but wonder why juvenile advocates aren’t clamoring for more significant changes to juvenile procedure.

For instance, a juvenile detention hearing itself would be more meaningful if judges were not privy to police and other evidentiary reports prior to making detention decisions, or at the very least, if arresting officers and complaining witnesses were required to appear, as in adult preliminary hearings.

Guaranteeing representation for juveniles at detention hearings is just the tip of the iceberg for increasing protections for juveniles in Georgia. 

Georgia is a state that allows for even first-time juvenile offenders as young as 14 to be tried as adults in certain offenses, and yet I haven’t seen so much as an email from policy-makers addressing the effect of this law on a juvenile’s due process rights.

I guess even when we have a long way to go, we have to start somewhere.

6 thoughts on “Where is Due Process in Juvenile Court?

  1. I was in the system and I think for me, it procedures were violated.
    Here is a summary of it.

    Fortas concluded:  “Due process of law is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom.  It is the basic and essential term in the social compact which defines the rights of the individual and delimits the powers which the state may exercise.”

    I was in that predicament where I was charge with 4 counts of robbery as a juvenile then turn adult as a 19 year old coming from being only 16 years old when I was sent to a juvenile facility, now back to 19 year old was charge again for an incident from when I was 16 years old and was certified as an adult and sent to adult prison for 4 years so the states exercise their way to put me through both juvenile and adult system over an episode I’ve done as a juvenile and I always wonder until now as a 35 years old man if I got screwed. Also on the same token I am now deported for the 19 years old conviction that was used by DHS to deport me to Cambodia. Can someone help me explain? Because I am in need of closure.

    • I would like to know more about this? I want to Thank you in advance for helping

  2. This is a response to Thomas Williams, The juvenile court system is racist, ineffective and dangerious to children and families. It serves as little more than a feeder into the adult prison system. I am an “expert” on this mess having worked in it during my early career and for the last 30 years as president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. See http://www.gac.org

  3. The author should think carefully about the implication of this article. One can easily complain about the results for kids in Juvenile Court, but complaints should never take the place of analysis.

    Many advocate clamor for more “significant changes to juvenile procedure.” It is a common mantra that many would like to see the Juvenile Court mirror the Adult criminal system. This ignores the obvious contrast that children are subject to far less sanction for a violation of the law than an adult would be. Concomitant with the limitation of sanctions, comes a restriction on the formalities of Juvenile Court that are the hallmarks of a criminal court. This idea is borne out by the long standing rule that no child has a constitutional right to trial by jury.

    Conversely, the law provides many protections for children that are specifically designed for Juvenile Courts. For instance, judges (or their designees) make intake decisions in an effort to limit the number of children exposed to pre-trial detention. Would the author prefer we adopt the adult model and all arrests result in detention until an appearance before a magistrate for bond?

    Finally, I urge the author to look more carefully at the current law. I note the law specifically directs the release of all children in pre-trial detention except when one of three exceptions apply.

    The law also grants juveniles an extremely onerous right to speedy trial. When a child is detained pending trial, the accusatory document must be filed within 72 hours and the trial is scheduled to be held with 10 days of the filing of the petition for delinquency.

    It is easy to see the flaws in Juvenile Court, and there are many. But a deeper understanding of the purpose and structure of the Juvenile Court reveals a stable system that provides a fair and Constitutional structure that is meant to resolve delinquencies in the best interest of the child.

    • Thank you for your comments Thomas. As a retired juvenile justice professional, though not perfect, the differences in the juvenile justice system protects youth far better than the adult system. Witness the lost of speedy trials in the adult system for the thirteen and over teens who are tried as adults and sit for months, some as long as two years awaiting a trial. On the other hand, in large juvenile courts, the prosecutor is rarely ready for trial within 10 days and youth remain detain pending 30 days or longer for trial. But, that is still beter than clonng the adult system to make the juvenile system more fair. I would never advocate to make the systems the same.

  4. Similarly, we wonder “Where is the Due Process in Family Court?”.

    My essay on THAT subject can be found at http://www.examiner.com/family-rights-in-national/the-cps-case-what-happens-the-fog

    What Happens in the FOG- Beginning with an anonymous hotline “tip” of suspected abuse, a parent enters a gray area of American jurisprudence. And it is not “murky” to his benefit.

    Child Abuse, when alleged, is not a criminal matter. It is blithely characterized as a “Civil” matter, much the same as a lawsuit to collect on a breach of contract. Thus, the Constitutional protections afforded in a criminal case are not necessarily extended to those accused of Child Abuse. Full Article

    To fully understand what Family Courts REALLY ARE- see Volksgerichtshof

    The People’s Court (German: Volksgerichtshof) was a court established in 1934 by German dictator Adolf Hitler, who had been dissatisfied with the outcome of the Reichstag Fire Trial (all but one of the accused were acquitted). The “People’s Court” was set up outside the operations of the constitutional frame of law. The court had jurisdiction over a rather broad array of “political offenses”

    Anything you might wonder about American Family Courts and Administrative Law Courts can be answered by observing what happened in the Nazi Volksgerichtshof.

    Ask the “judge” if you’re in a CONSTITUTIONAL COURT OF DUE PROCESS. They cannot answer you honestly, because YOU ARE NOT

    ~By the way~
    When the Nazi’s picked up the Jews and sent them to Concentration Camps, they called it
    Schutzhaft, literally translated “Protective Custody”

    Leonard Henderson, co-founder
    American Family Rights
    “Until Every Child Comes Home”©
    “The Voice of America’s Families”©