Effective assistance of counsel is essential to reducing unnecessary detention, transfer to adult court, and incarceration of young people. Youth in delinquency cases have a constitutional right to counsel, as the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in the 1967 landmark case, In re Gault. Yet across the country, youth too often face court hearings without the assistance of competent counsel, sometimes appointed as little as five minutes before the case is called, and many waive their right to counsel altogether. Like all people, youth need access to qualified, well-resourced defense counsel throughout the entire juvenile or criminal court process.
Beneficial reforms include early assignment of counsel; policies that ensure that all youth are represented; specialized training for attorneys on topics such as adolescent development, mental health and special education; and cross-system representation when adolescents are involved in multiple systems such as special education and child welfare. An informed defense attorney can also ensure that youth are not subject to unwarranted collateral consequences of juvenile justice-involvement that can affect education, employment and residence.
Principles of Reform
- Divert Youth from the Justice System
- Reduce Institutionalization
- Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities
- Ensure Access to Quality Counsel
- Create a Range of Effective Community-Based Programs
- Recognize and Serve Youth with Specialized Needs
- Improve Aftercare and Reentry
- Engage Youth, Family, and Community
- Keep Youth Out of Adult Courts, Jails, and Prisons
Each National Juvenile Justice Network member embraces these principles of reform, and conducts state-based work on at least two principles. These principles and the associated text are from “Juvenile Justice Reform: A Blueprint,” developed by the Youth Transition Funders Group.