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Selling Justice Short: Juvenile Indigent Defense in Texas

NCJ Number
Date Published
October 2000
48 pages
This study examined the accessibility and quality of legal representation for indigent juveniles in the Texas juvenile justice system.
The specific objectives of this study were to identify the ways in which Texas provides legal representation for poor juveniles in the justice system; to determine how this legal representation is funded; to identify the system characteristics that encourage or impede attorneys' abilities to serve their juvenile clients; and to assess the access juveniles have to competent legal representation. The study conducted extensive onsite interviews, courtroom observations, a comprehensive review of relevant literature, and an analysis of data for a representative sample of 23 Texas counties. At each site a team of experts observed court proceedings; toured court and detention facilities; and conducted interviews with juvenile defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, court coordinators, court administrators, court auditors, and court clerks. Team members also interviewed juveniles, parents, child advocates, detention center staff, social workers, and juvenile board members. The study concluded that currently an indigent juvenile who faces charges in a Texas juvenile court has little chance of receiving meaningful legal representation. Many attorneys for juveniles are not performing the most basic functions commonly recognized as critical for effective legal representation. Attorneys routinely fail to have effective client interviews, to conduct pretrial investigations, to conduct witness interviews, to file pretrial motions, to request mental health and education reviews, and to prepare for trial and disposition. The routine disposition of juvenile cases is through plea negotiations, with defense attorneys serving as facilitators rather than advocates for their clients. In many counties, defense attorneys who process cases through the system quickly and smoothly are rewarded with appointments by the court; whereas, attorneys who insist that the rights of their clients be respected by the court are punished with reduced fees and fewer appointments. Recommendations include the independent oversight and monitoring of the juvenile indigent defense system, the setting of standards for defense attorney selection and performance and the monitoring of compliance, and the development of an attorney funding structure that serves the interests of competent defense services for indigent juveniles. Recommendations are also offered for improving the effective defense representation of attorneys for indigent juveniles, such as an increase in resources, training, and compensation; a reduction in caseloads; and continuity of representation throughout case processing. 38 notes and appended IJA/ABA juvenile justice standards relating to counsel for private parties