It happens too often in court systems around the country. A teenager is charged with a crime. His family can’t afford a lawyer, but the court won’t assign him one until he can prove a lack of funds.
He meets his lawyer for the first time a few minutes before he’s due to appear in court. The lawyer’s waving a file and using words the teenager doesn’t understand. There’s not much time to discuss the circumstances around the charges, the teen’s options in court and their various consequences.
The teen heads before the judge, unprepared and uncertain. He’s found guilty.
As courtrooms juggle massive caseloads, measures to ensure a robust defense for juveniles can fall by the wayside, leading to life-long repercussions for minors. Now a national organization devoted to the legal defense of juveniles has released a comprehensive, peer-reviewed set of standards that it hopes will go a long way toward ensuring that lawyers assigned to defend minors can offer them the best possible representation in court.
“What we have found in courtrooms around the country is that there is a failure to recognize the special skills and knowledge that is required to confidently and zealously represent juveniles,” said Cathryn Crawford, a contributor to the standards who helped manage the Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation. “It’s not a consequence of people simply not caring, but there is a pervasive attitude that juvenile court is not important because cases are less severe than adult court.”
Increasingly, however, a botched defense can impact the rest of a minor’s life. “Although juvenile court was conceived with the idea that it would serve as a kind and just parent, and was meant to facilitate rehabilitation and not punishment, the courts have become increasingly more punitive and the consequences for children prosecuted in court have become more significant and longer-lasting,” Crawford said.
In response to the need to improve the way minors are represented in court, the National Juvenile Defender Center spent five years collaborating with dozens of legal experts across several juvenile defense organizations, overseeing a rigorous drafting and reviewing process that resulted in the 162-page “National Juvenile Defense Standards” booklet, the first stand-alone national blueprint of its kind.
Released in early February, the booklet lays out the ethical obligations, training requirements, communication needs and best practices for defending minors, creating a framework that its supporters hope will be adopted by jurisdictions around the country.
“Children are different than adults. The United States Supreme Court has key cases that made that absolutely clear,” said Robert Listenbee Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the current chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “It takes years to become a highly trained professional in this field, but a lot of times lawyers believe that because they’re excellent adult defense attorneys that they can transfer over and do juvenile work quite easily. But that's really not the case. You really have to understand what’s happening in the minds of juveniles.”
The standards encourage jurisdictions to allow defenders to specialize in juvenile cases and train for that purpose. “Many systems do not treat juvenile defenders as a specialization and so the lawyers in that system may not be getting access to the best information to treat their clients,” said Tim Curry, the managing attorney at the National Juvenile Defender Center.
The standards also encourage justice systems to presume that all juveniles lack the funds to pay for their own defense, speeding up their access to a lawyer. “Because children are not financially secure in and of themselves, there should be a presumption of indigence for children,” Curry said.
There is no national bar association for juvenile defenders, and defense lawyers are not obligated to follow these standards. But its architects said they hope the standards serve as a model for states and local jurisdictions to develop their own codes of conduct, or to use a job-training tool for defenders, or to evaluate their job performance.
“One of the realities that exist in a lot of courtrooms around the country is that lawyers don’t meet their clients until just before they appear in court,” Crawford said. “In many jurisdictions, they give advice and the kids will plead guilty on the first or second court appearance. That’s not appropriate.”
The standards were clear in expecting lawyers to communicate clearly with their minor clients. “The lawyer needs time to collect and examine the facts of the case, they need time to interview the client, find out the client’s version of events and the client’s priorities and opinion of where the case needs to go,” Crawford said. “If the lawyer comes to court and the judge is saying, ‘I want to get this done today,’ they can point to the standards and say it’s my ethical obligation to sit down with client and without distraction get the facts of the case and the objectives of my client.”
The most important thing is to get the booklet to lawyers and judges around the country, supporters said.
“There are a number of different ways that the objectives of these standards can be realized and the key, I think, is just getting them in people’s hands,” Crawford said. “Even if they are not binding, they can nevertheless be instructive to individual lawyers who are trying to determine what their obligations and responsibilities are.”
About 1,200 hard copies of the booklet have been sent out so far, with hundreds more in the pipeline, and an unknown number have been downloaded electronically and shared on listservs around the country, Curry said.
The current system has been in place for so long that few people question current practices, Crawford said. These standards give people a chance to reassess “why it’s important to provide competent representation and ensure a fair justice system.”
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