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.”
During a hot summer day, daycare workers removed children from a van, except one — Jazzmin Green. She was two years old. Sixteen-year-old Miesha Ridley was responsible for checking off the names of the children as they were removed. There was a mark next to Jazzmin’s name. An hour passed before anyone noticed she was missing.
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?