This section highlights current juvenile justice issues around the country, including racial, ethnic, economic, and geographic disparities in juvenile court; problems regarding children’s access to counsel; degrading and harmful practices such as shackling and solitary confinement; and experiences of youth who are involved in both the justice and child welfare court systems. In addition, this section provides an overview of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and outlines steps to improve access to justice and developmentally appropriate treatment for children.
The future of our nation depends upon the future of our young people—including young people who have become involved with our justice system.Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Nearly one million children are formally charged in America’s juvenile courts every year. Most children who appear in court are accused of typical adolescent conduct, like trespassing, possession of marijuana, and disturbing the peace. But not all children who commit such acts—which are developmentally normal—are prosecuted formally. Racial and ethnic disparities are widespread in juvenile court. For example, although youth of color make up 41% of the national population, they account for nearly 70% of children involved in the juvenile court system. Youth of color are not only disproportionately involved in the justice system, they also receive harsher treatment at every stage of the juvenile court process.
Access to justice requires access to counsel for all of America’s children. Nearly 50 years ago in In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that children need representation throughout the entirety of their cases. But today, few children receive meaningful access to a qualified juvenile defense attorney when in juvenile court.
The right to counsel is common sense but not common practice in America’s juvenile courts. Fair treatment of children in juvenile court is almost impossible without representation by a well-trained, highly skilled juvenile defense attorney who will be the child’s voice and advocate at every step in the proceedings. Meaningful access to counsel must include early access to counsel—at the first possible moment in a child’s case. And it must be easy. While it is up to the judge to assign defense lawyers to those who can’t afford them, this does not mean that the appointment of counsel for children is optional. Moreover, many courts have burdensome processes to determine whether a child can afford an attorney, which delays access to counsel even further.
Barriers such as these contribute to high rates of children waiving their right to counsel at the outset. Access to counsel is critical for the initial hearing, as well as during and after disposition or sentencing, and can greatly improve a child’s life outcomes. Without representation, many children languish in costly facilities and unnecessarily carry the stigma of their childhood mistakes well into adulthood.
In re Gault was a giant step forward for the rights of children. Yet, due to inconsistent enforcement and lack of awareness, the due process rights of our children in delinquency court are not protected. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
juvenile delinquency cases each year
states have no laws saying how young is too young to prosecute a child
states do not restrict shackling of children in juvenile court
states do not allow jury trials in juvenile court
The National Juvenile Defender Center and its allies and partners will be commemorating the Gault decision in the run up to the 50th anniversary. Find an event below.
At the National Juvenile Defender Center, we promote justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense. NJDC was founded to guarantee every child facing prosecution in juvenile court is represented by an attorney who is specialized and trained to defend children.