At our 20th Annual Juvenile Defender Leadership Summit last month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch provided video remarks to express her appreciation for juvenile defenders and those on the front lines who are working to uphold children’s rights in court. She also affirmed her commitment — and that of the Department of Justice — to ensure access to counsel, and access to justice, for all children facing prosecution.
Watch the Video or read the full transcript below.
I’m sorry I can’t be with you today, but I’m honored to have a chance to share with you the work the Department of Justice is doing to ensure all children have access to justice. I want to thank the National Juvenile Defender Center for being such an outstanding partner in this fight and all of the juvenile defense attorneys who make this critical work possible day in and day out.
Almost 50 years ago, the landmark Supreme Court decision, In Re Gault, affirmed that the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection apply to children. The decision made clear that children have a right to counsel in juvenile court proceedings and it affirmed that right as essential to protecting children and to advancing the rehabilitation of justice involved youth.
While groups like NJDC have made great strides towards reforming the delinquency system, the promise of justice still rings hollow for many young people in court rooms across the country. For many justice involved youth, the guarantees of Gault are still not a reality.
We have an obligation to make those guarantees real. Every child involved in the justice system must have his or her basic rights respected. Every child whose future is at risk should fully understand his or her legal options. And every child, regardless of the family’s financial circumstances, deserves to be represented by competent and specialized counsel.
Each of you plays a critical role in ensuring that young people are appropriately and expertly represented, that their rights are protected and that legal proceedings involving juveniles serve justice rather than distort it.
Protecting the most vulnerable among us is one of my top priorities as Attorney General and I want to personally thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of one of our society’s most vulnerable populations.
At the Department of Justice, we are working on a number of fronts to give young people the legal representation and resources they deserve. Under our Smart of Juvenile Justice Initiative, we’re supporting efforts in five states to improve the quality of indigent defense. And under our Enhancing Youth Access to Justice Initiative, we’ve given four states funding to develop state-wide juvenile indigent defense reform plans and we’ve given two of those states further funds to implement their plans. Additionally, our Civil Right Division enforces the right to counsel in juvenile court proceedings. And along with our Office for Access to Justice, it has filed numerous briefs and statements of interest in favor of bolstering juveniles’ rights to counsel. Indeed, in one of those briefs, N.P v. State of Georgia, the Department argued that children cannot knowingly, intelligently, and involuntarily waive their right to counsel unless they have been counseled by an attorney first.
We have made tremendous progress in the last 50 years, but as you all know there is so much work left to be done. Throughout the country, juvenile defenders face punishing workloads. Many lack the training and resources critical to their success. But while the work ahead may seem daunting, I’m confident that by continuing to work together and by continuing to affirm our commitment to equal justice for all, we will help give every young person the opportunity they deserve to grow and to flourish. I want to thank you for all that you are doing to make that vision a reality. I want you to know that the Justice Department shares your determination to build a brighter future for all and I look forward to all that we will achieve together in the days to come.