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.
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.
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, 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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