The New Push for Juvenile Justice Reform

A Georgia case moves the Department of Justice to deal with the national shortage of public defenders for youths.

(Photo: Brandon Laufenberg/Getty Images)

Mar 23, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When W.M. shoplifted a pair of Halloween fangs from Walmart, the 17-year-old high school senior didn’t realize the $2.97 price tag would be a fraction of what he’d pay if he got caught. He was charged and by November 2013 appeared in a Crisp County, Georgia, juvenile court. No public defender was available; they were all busy with cases in a neighboring county. So the judge gave W.M. a choice: Do you want to move forward without an attorney and finish the case, or do you want to come back later, when a public defender might be available? W.M. chose to proceed without a lawyer and admitted to stealing the fangs. He was sentenced to nine months' probation, 40 hours of community service, and an 8 p.m. curfew.

W.M.’s story represents one of the key challenges facing youths in the American criminal justice system who can’t afford private attorneys. It has also attracted the U.S. Department of Justice’s attention. Earlier this month, the Justice Department made its boldest statement yet on the pervasive problem of cash-strapped state- and county-based public defender systems that fail to provide trained attorneys to effectively defend youths involved in criminal cases. When children relying on these over-burdened departments aren’t able to see an attorney or meet with a public defender who doesn’t have time to investigate their case, they are more likely to plead guilty without understanding the consequences. Research shows that once a child enters the juvenile justice system, it is more likely he’ll return.

“For too long, the Supreme Court’s promise of fairness for young people accused of delinquency has gone unfulfilled in courts across our country,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in announcing the federal government’s action. “Every child has the right to a competent attorney who will provide the highest level of professional guidance and advocacy. It is time for courts to adequately fund indigent defense systems for children and meet their constitutional responsibilities.”

The Justice Department’s statement-of-interest suit should be viewed in a larger context. In recent months, the Obama administration has outlined a more aggressive strategy to reform the country’s criminal justice system. The timing of the Justice Department’s action suggests that Holder, who will soon leave office, believes that reforming the juvenile justice system must be a priority. It will be up to his successor to determine how vigorously the federal government will drive the issue. President Obama’s nominee for attorney general—Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York—said during her Senate confirmation hearing that the handling of juveniles in the system was “of great concern.”

Fundamentally, the department’s action reminds courts that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that children must have access to an effective attorney for the duration of their court proceedings—and that permitting a child to waive that right without first seeing a lawyer is a deprivation of his rights. The department’s statement also tells the court that if a child wants to waive his right to an attorney, a lawyer must be present to prove that he’s fully capable of making that decision. The circular nature of the problem is obvious in places like Crisp County, where too many juvenile cases are put on hold or plead out.

“The statement of interest will serve as a wake-up call in counties across the country that are paying short shrift to the rights of children,” said Atteeyah Hollie, a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, the public-interest law firm that filed the Georgia suit. “We think and we hope that it can lead to agencies and public defender offices across the country taking a look at what they’re doing and where they fall short of the DOJ’s statement.”

The suit originates in four Georgia counties that have only three public defenders to handle nearly 1,700 cases for poor defendants each year. Those numbers show why the overworked, understaffed office has failed to sufficiently defend youths. The case highlights the stories of W.M. and five other black youths in Georgia between 13 and 17, as well as five adults—none of whom could afford a lawyer.

Children who aren’t fully advised of their rights and the repercussions of choices made in juvenile court are more likely to plead guilty, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center. That often gets them out the courthouse door quickly. But many will wind up back in the criminal justice system. “Every time you enter the juvenile delinquency system, it’s a big deal,” says Randee Waldman, an Emory University clinical law professor. “Even on something that seems minor, there are collateral consequences, and the ability to move deeper into the system increases drastically as soon as you enter it.”

It’s hard for even the experts to predict how the Justice Department’s action will be interpreted by the courts. In Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, the states have shifted the tall order of overseeing the funding and management of public defender systems to the counties. In Georgia, for example, the state’s 159 counties have a patchwork of mismatched public defender systems, according to Hollie. So it’s possible the Justice Department’s action will force a debate about more funding for the juvenile defender systems and where that funding should come from.

“What’s happening to poor children accused of crimes in our courts is a travesty,” says Hollie. “We need to be mindful of what’s happening to our most vulnerable citizens if we care about equal justice and we care about our children’s futures.”