In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children in juvenile court must receive due process protections, including the right to counsel. The case, In re Gault, which originated in Gila County, Ariz., created the foundation of juvenile defense as we know it today. No longer would children face the awesome power of the state and the prospect of losing their liberty without benefitting from “the guiding hand of counsel.”
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Fifty years after the Gault decision aimed to revolutionize the country’s juvenile court system, the Arizona judiciary invited the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) to assess the state’s juvenile defense system to see whether the birthplace of Gault has successfully implemented the Supreme Court’s mandates in the half-century since the decision.
NJDC’s state assessments
Over the past two decades, NJDC has conducted comprehensive assessments of juvenile defense delivery systems in 24 states. Teams of national juvenile defense experts review background research and data, then visit numerous jurisdictions within a state to observe court proceedings, conduct comprehensive and confidential in-person interviews, participate in meetings and tour facilities.
The expert investigators engage in pre- and post-site visit briefings to analyze the state’s system; then their observations, findings and recommendations are compiled into an assessment report. The report provides policymakers, defense leadership and other stakeholders with a comprehensive understanding of children’s access to counsel in the state, identifies structural and systemic barriers that impede effective representation of children, highlights best practices where found and makes recommendations for improving juvenile defender services in the state.
NJDC’s assessments have helped support reform of the juvenile defense and juvenile justice systems in every state they have been conducted.
Arizona: Gault by geography
In a report released in 2017, NJDC found that “though every state has a basic structure to provide attorneys for children, few states or territories adequately satisfy access to counsel for young people.” Our assessment of Arizona found this to be true even in the birthplace of Gault.
Despite being geographically vast, Arizona has only 15 counties. A young person’s experience with Arizona’s juvenile justice system, their access to counsel and the quality of representation they receive depends heavily on which of those 15 counties the young person experiences court involvement in.
Some Arizona counties have adopted best practices, ensuring all children are represented by counsel. In other counties, though, children have little access to counsel and attorneys lack opportunities for training and specialization.
Although “justice by geography” — variations in applying laws and providing access to rights—is not uncommon in juvenile justice systems across the country, assessment investigators found that geographical differences in Arizona were particularly stark.
Court culture unchanged since Gault
Assessment investigators found that the culture in several counties’ juvenile courts values stakeholder collegiality over due process and youth success. The assessment report notes, “It seems in some places and in some moments that the Gault decision never happened.”
In these juvenile courts, stakeholders focus on a child’s perceived best interests, despite the Supreme Court’s mandate that young people’s stated interests be vigorously advocated by counsel and considered by the court. This focus on best interests also ignores decades of research showing that young people are more successful when their stated interests are heard and used to shape their rehabilitation plans.
Nothing in Juvenile Court is free
From the moment a youth enters Arizona’s juvenile court system, they and their family become subject to an extraordinary number of fines, fees and costs. These financial sanctions, which can accrue to thousands of dollars, are regularly assessed against youth and families presumed or found by a court to be indigent.
Court-ordered financial obligations were found to interfere with children’s constitutional right to counsel, corrupt the role of courts and court officials, and mire youth and families in debts that last far longer than the child’s involvement in the juvenile justice system. And, importantly, investigators found no evidence that the state or local jurisdictions realize any financial gain from these harmful fees and costs.
Hope for reform
The Arizona assessment report offers 16 recommendations for reform, including automatically appointing counsel to all youth, eliminating burdensome fees and costs, promulgating statewide standards for juvenile defense practice and training, eliminating racial disparities and ensuring courts do not compromise due process for youth.
Fortunately, Arizona’s juvenile court stakeholders are willing to take on these important and necessary reforms. Work is underway on reforms to the state’s record destruction laws, public defenders across the state have expressed their intention to work together to improve representation for youth and stakeholders have indicated willingness to discuss reforming financial sanctions.
The care and compassion displayed by Arizona’s juvenile court stakeholders convinced assessment investigators that the state’s many barriers to quality representation are not insurmountable. NJDC looks forward to working with Arizona to finally bring Gault home.
Mary Ann Scali is the executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to promoting justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense.