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Access to Counsel

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2004
34 pages
This bulletin, the second in a series, examines issues surrounding access to legal counsel in the juvenile justice system.
In 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles have the right to legal counsel, upholding the constitutional rights of children under the 6th and 14th amendments. In 1974, Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act with the goal of developing National standards for juvenile justice. The resulting Juvenile Justice Standards included the requirement that juveniles must be represented by counsel at the outset of the juvenile justice process. Although juveniles enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights, it is up to competent legal counsel to ensure that their rights are respected. A step-by-step review of the juvenile justice process is presented to underscore the point that juveniles are often denied their basic rights involving access to legal counsel. Factors that hinder access to quality juvenile defense counsel are considered, among them are professional and procedural factors involving the appointment of counsel, heavy caseloads, and compensation. Analysis of the work of juvenile defense attorneys revealed that the use of motions in juvenile cases was seriously lacking, investigations by attorneys were rarely conducted, and training for juvenile defense attorneys was sorely lacking. Among the barriers to effective legal counsel is the lack of professional support extended to attorneys who work in juvenile justice. Policy factors and philosophical issues affecting juveniles’ access to effective legal counsel are also discussed, including State policies and due process problems involving the “best interests of the child.” The elements necessary to an effective juvenile defense was outlined by the Sentencing Project and are presented here. Identified elements include valid assessment; knowledge of youth development; access to experts, information, and community resources; building on family strengths; appropriate defense strategies; and integration of juvenile defense with other systems such as social services, health care, and education. Finally, the bulletin examines initiative and reforms at the State level regarding the improvement of access and quality of counsel for juvenile suspects and reviews several promising programs, including the First Defense Legal Aid and Mesa County Partners. Contact information is provided for each program. Remaining challenges include issues of compensation and working conditions within the juvenile justice system. A listing of resource organizations is provided. References

Date Published: June 1, 2004