A recent report released by the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) outlines areas of concern for the legal representation provided to youth in Delaware.
Released last week, An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Juvenile Delinquency Proceedings identifies systemic barriers limiting quality and access to juvenile defense services, and determines there is an urgent need for specialized lawyers to represent juveniles.
While defenders in Delaware are committed to fairness and access to opportunity for juveniles, systemic issues impact youth in juvenile delinquency courts.
“The juvenile defender should serve as a check on the power of the state at every turn to ensure the court system is fair. However, in Delaware’s Family Courts this check was often replaced by someone actively facilitating the child’s descent deeper into system involvement,” the report said.
The NJDC’s assessment team evaluated Delaware’s practices by observing juvenile delinquency proceedings, obtaining information from Delaware Family Courts and conducting interviews with staff from the state’s Office of Delinquency Services. The report is part of an ongoing series of state assessments that examine the systemic and institutional barriers facing the juvenile defense system and offer recommendations to improve juvenile defense.
The Delaware report recognizes juvenile defense as requiring juvenile-specific training, supervision, standards and supportive resources. However, the investigation found that Delaware has an absence of attorney support in multiple stages of a youth’s due process. Often, defense attorneys are not made available when youth are interrogated, arrested and brought before the courts for arraignments. Without an attorney present, youth have no protection of their rights.
During moments when attorneys were present with the youth, investigators observed a lack of “zealous advocacy.” In many hearings, investigators found that some juvenile defense attorneys did not ask for a new bail hearing, discuss treatment options, or advocate that the youth be sent to a nonsecure detention facility. The lack of advocacy by these attorneys facilitates the youth’s involvement in the justice system.
According to the report, “At every moment when advocacy could occur in the Family Court – at hearings for arraignment, detention, bail, suppression, plea, sentencing, or thereafter – that opportunity is stripped out by habit, collegiality, local practice or home rule.”
The report also faulted Delaware for the absence of a chief juvenile defender, who could provide leadership, and its use of monetary bail. Other issues include attorneys carrying mixed caseloads of both adult and juvenile cases and Delaware’s use of video conferencing during some hearings. Video hearings impede attorneys from having confidential counsel with youth when they are not both in the courtroom.
The report provided several recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders in the justice system. Among these are discontinuing the use of monetary bail for juveniles, prohibiting the use of video hearings and reducing the prosecution of youth as adults.
The full report can be found here.