Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s In re Gault decision that established the right of children to counsel in juvenile court.
In opening the way for a system of legal representation for youth in the juvenile justice system, the court famously declared that “[u]nder our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”
But ensuring the adequate and equal access to an attorney for all children has often been inconsistent. While some juvenile justice systems ensure that every child is represented, a new report from the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) says that many others continue to allow a substantial percentage of youth charged with an offense to appear in court without a lawyer, including a disproportionate number of children of color.
The NJDC report, Defend Children: A Blueprint for Effective Juvenile Defender Services, points to several barriers that exacerbate the difficulty in youth obtaining legal services in juvenile courts, including racial disparities, difficulty in accessing services in rural areas and a lack of funding.
In order to address these challenges, the NJDC suggests that policymakers and advocates should scrutinize laws at the state and local level to a create a more equitable system of legal representation system for juveniles and build on emerging juvenile justice reforms.
The report’s authors say they took into account thousands of hours of juvenile court observation, assessments of state juvenile court systems and the expertise of attorneys, researchers and advocates. The report includes a history of Supreme Court cases that have supported the protection of juveniles in the legal system, suggestions for improving the representation of youth in juvenile courts and new practices across the country that have been shown effective at improving access to justice for youth.
The NJDC report lays out the following recommendations for improving the practice of juvenile defense:
- Champion, uphold, and fund children’s right to counsel
- Ensure meaningful access to counsel throughout the delinquency process
- Implement strong, well-resourced, and specialized juvenile defense systems
- Eliminate racial and ethnic disparities
- Attract and retain new and diverse talent to the field of juvenile defense
- Protect the rights of youth who face additional discrimination and violation of their constitutional rights
- Fund and implement mechanisms to collect data, conduct assessments and court observations, and initiate evaluation and research
Each recommendation includes several specific ideas for improving the access to and practice of juvenile defense services, as well as a corresponding “innovation” that highlights an effective practice already taking place in a particular jurisdiction.
Click here to read the report.