U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Model Programs Guide Literature Review: Indigent Defense for Juveniles

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2018
8 pages

After reviewing the constitutional and case-law mandate that indigent juveniles charged with an offense have a right to counsel, this report explains how some states determine whether or not a juvenile is indigent, followed by discussions of barriers to juveniles receiving counsel, differences between juvenile and adult representation, limitations to indigent defense data, and outcome evidence.


Although constitutional law requires that juveniles who cannot afford legal representation because of indigence are required to be provided with counsel, recent data on juvenile indigent defense are limited and come largely from public defender agencies. Overall, indigent defense for juveniles is understudied. More research on this topic is needed so juveniles who cannot afford legal counsel are better served in the justice system. Research to date has provided mixed results on the benefits or detriments of counsel for juveniles. One study found that for youth with public counsel, out-of-home placement was more common (Burruss and Kempf-Leonard, 2002). Another study found that youth without counsel were more likely to have charges dropped and less likely to be placed in secure confinement when compared with youth who had legal counsel (Guevara, Spohn, and Herz, 2004). This study also suggested that private attorneys produced worse outcomes for youth compared with youth who had public defenders. Kupchik and Harvey determined that public defense was an important safeguard against potential inequities within the juvenile justice system. They argued that extralegal information about defendants is commonly discussed in juvenile court, so the presence of a public defender may protect against subjectivity in sentencing. 27 references