Tamar Birckhead is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a criminal defense attorney with more than 20 years of experience. She is a faculty supervisor of the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic, an academic program in which third-year law students defend children charged with criminal offenses in juvenile delinquency court. Professor Birckhead’s research interests focus on issues related to juvenile justice policy and reform, criminal law and procedure, and indigent criminal defense; her scholarship has been published in numerous law journals, and she co-edited the third edition of a law school casebook, Children, Parents, and the Law, with Professor Leslie J. Harris. She also regularly writes commentary, which has been published in the Los Angeles Times, and she recently launched the Juvenile Justice Blog.
Prior to joining the UNC faculty in 2004, Professor Birckhead practiced for 10 years as a public defender, representing indigent criminal defendants in the Massachusetts trial and appellate courts and in federal district court in Boston. Professor Birckhead has defended clients in a wide variety of criminal cases, from violent felony offenses in state court to acts of terrorism in federal court. Among her clients was Richard Reid, the attempted "Shoe Bomber" prosecuted in the First Circuit under the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Licensed to practice in North Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts, Professor Birckhead has been a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education programs across the United States as well as a faculty member at the Trial Advocacy Workshop at Harvard Law School. She received her B.A. degree in English literature with honors from Yale University and her J.D. with honors from Harvard Law School, where she served as Recent Developments Editor of the Harvard Women's Law Journal.
One important aspect of the discussion of the solitary confinement of youth that has received little attention is the role of race and socioeconomic status. Research has demonstrated that young people of color — like Kalief Browder — are more likely to be placed in the juvenile and adult court systems, to remain in them longer and to experience more punitive sanctions than whites.
It remains to be seen whether Montgomery v. Louisiana will be the death knell for JLWOP. As it stands, judges maintain the discretion to conclude that particular juvenile offenders convicted of homicide are, in fact, intrinsically incapable of redemption and will never be fit to re-enter society.
The Court’s December 1 refusal to hear an appeal of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling allowing for retroactive application means that at least 80 of the 100 inmates serving juvenile life without parole in that state will now have an opportunity for resentencing.
Although the media, members of the public and even some JPOs, prosecutors and judges colloquially refer to juvenile court as “kiddie court,” presuming it has few negative effects on children, research indicates that the impact of juvenile court processing is not benign.
North Carolina is the only state in the U.S. that treats all 16 and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. Although New York also ends juvenile court jurisdiction at 16, it has a law that allows judges, in certain circumstances, to seal the criminal conviction of a 16 or 17 year old and sentence her to probation. Only nine other states end juvenile court jurisdiction at age 17, with the vast majority prosecuting everyone under 18 in juvenile court. Despite the fact that child welfare advocates, scholars and some lawmakers in North Carolina have repeatedly backed legislative proposals to extend jurisdiction to ages 17 or 18, they have consistently been defeated on the state level. Why does the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction matter? The main reason is that young people who are convicted of criminal offenses face significant barriers when attempting to secure jobs or gain access to higher education.