Report: Youth Lack Access to Quality Defense Attorneys


WASHINGTON — Better data collection, improved efforts to attract juvenile defenders and well-funded, well-organized defense systems are among the ways to ensure youth charged with an offense have a lawyer by their side when they enter a courtroom, a new report says.

The National Juvenile Defender Center released an analysis that details how the group believes federal, state and local officials, as well as law schools and others, could help ensure more juveniles have access to legal counsel.

The recommendations include appointing counsel for all juveniles without requiring a finding of indigence, requiring a juvenile to meet with an attorney before waiving their right to counsel and implementing new training standards for juvenile defenders.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub | Juvenile Indigent Defense

The report also highlights why the current system isn’t working, including lack of funding, an insufficient number of attorneys who understand adolescents and a complicated judicial process that means juveniles often waive their right to counsel before ever speaking with an attorney.

“Children are arrested for what is mostly normal youth conduct and can be separated from their families and incarcerated without even the most rudimentary attempts to protect their rights,” said Mary Ann Scali, the acting executive director of NJDC, in a news release. “Our most vulnerable defendants are the least likely to have an effective attorney in our courtrooms.”

The report released Monday comes in the midst of the organization’s yearlong campaign “Gault at 50,” which seeks to improve access to quality legal counsel for juveniles in the leadup to the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1967 In re Gault decision. The ruling said young people in juvenile court have many of the same rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to counsel.

A 2003 survey by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found only 42 percent of youth in custody reported having a lawyer.

The report focuses not just on the legal right to counsel but on the recent changes to juvenile justice that are built on the idea that the system must recognize the developmental differences between adolescents and adults.

Adequate juvenile defense is part of building that developmentally responsive system, the report said.

“Research indicates because of normal developmental changes — social, emotional, physical, and neurological — when faced with the same circumstances, adolescents respond differently than adults,” said Antoinette Kavanaugh, a Chicago-based board-certified forensic clinical psychologist, in a news release. “As a result, adolescents need lawyers from the point of arrest until they are released from the legal system to help them successfully navigate and make legal decisions.”