Getting in trouble and getting punished is a natural part of adolescence. But for some teens the punishment is worse than the crime, executed not by a stern parent but by a county judge who leaves them defenseless.
According to a new analysis of youth in court systems, criminal-defense lawyers for young people in many communities are substandard, prohibitively costly, or just completely unavailable. Every day, kids who haven’t even grasped algebra are left to navigate on their own a system that confounds even the most skilled attorneys.
The concept of indigent defense is, theoretically, supposed to ensure that those too poor to afford a lawyer in a criminal trial are assigned a public defender. But young people charged as juvenile offenders, despite being among the most vulnerable in the legal system, are denied a court-provided lawyer because of overly strict rules governing access to public justice services. One of the main reasons kids fall through cracks is because being young is not the same as being without financial means, in the eyes of the court. The National Juvenile Defense Center’s (NJDC) analysis reveals that “Only 11 states provide every child accused of an offense with a lawyer, regardless of financial status.” Sometimes youth defendants’ families exceed the standard poverty threshold, but parents still cannot afford—or they may refuse—to pay for a private lawyer. So families are forced to pay a devastating financial and social cost just for the exercise of basic constitutional rights, or kids face prosecution alone.
When Dominique, a young teen in Tennessee, was charged with misdemeanors after a night of drinking and vandalism, the court determined that her family could afford a lawyer privately. But her father was too poor to front the money and she remained in custody. Though the traumatic ordeal could have been avoided altogether with a more realistic financial assessment, Dominique was still punished for a night of mischief with a week behind bars. NJDC has urged reforms to make financial evaluations for youth defendants fairer and more transparent, both to protect families from unnecessary economic burdens and ensure youth are not needlessly incarcerated, often well before the judge even hears their case.
Mishi Faruqee, national field director of Youth First, says the denial of due process reflects judges’ inability to see juveniles as individuals, instead of viewing them as social liabilities, to be either disciplined or banished.
“From beginning to end,” Faruqee says, “we need a system that addresses the needs of individual young people…and we should look at their individual circumstances…so that young people don’t go unnecessarily deeper in the system than they have to.”