On November 17th, the Vera Institute of Justice convened its fourth juvenile justice briefing titled Raising the Bar: The Lawyer’s Role in Promoting Youth Justice. This briefing is part of a larger Vera series titled The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Results and Reform.

Watch a video of the event.

The panelists included Patricia Puritz, executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, Marsha Levick, deputy director and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, Robert Mason, director of the juvenile division at the Office of the Public Defender in the 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida, and Kim Dvorchak, the executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition. Their discussion centered around the systemic challenges faced by young people in juvenile justice legal proceedings.

Patricia Puritz stated that despite the right to counsel enumerated in the Constitution, in the context of our current juvenile justice system it “feels more like an option.” She described how at the start of the systems’ implementation, the focus was on adult offenders, and juveniles were simply lumped together into the same category. She went on to note how juveniles and adults have extremely different needs at every level of the court process. Ms. Puritz described how juvenile offenders typically receive an attorney with a mixed legal background, and she emphasized the need for lawyers who specialize in juvenile justice cases. She said that this systemic neglect results in a diminished community wide trust of all aspects of the judicial process, and can result in tragic consequences similar to the recent events in Ferguson. As egregious as these failures may be, she continued, they are not intractable, and there is achievable progress to be made on both the front and back ends of the juvenile justice system.

Marsha Levick described the flaws in our state-based judicial system, reiterating how the overall lack of uniformity decreases the quality and effectiveness of our legal processes. She called the judicial scandal in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania a “failure of the public defense system,” and estimated that at least 50 percent of the children victimized during that scandal appeared in court without a lawyer. Ms. Levick believes that this resulted from a sense of complacency—a tolerance for judicial processes that do not provide justice. According to Ms. Levick, this occurs because individual decision makers are unable to see how they themselves contribute to its failings. She concluded by stating that having the “right” to counsel is not enough; defendants must be provided access to counsel that is convenient and accessible as well.

Robert Mason detailed the different criminal standards that are applied to juveniles today, noting that children are arrested more frequently for less serious offenses. Mr. Mason described how lawyers are simply overworked, which results in the children being short-changed. Lawyers who are not familiar with the appellate process are also often unaware of the rights granted to their juvenile clients, and thus do not inform them of aspects of the process that would result in a just verdict. “If a child appears in court without a lawyer,” said Mr. Mason, “then he or she is essentially pleading guilty, because it is impossible for a child or their parents to understand the legal jargon involved with our current system.”

Kim Dvorchak detailed how she and her organization were able to chip away at the issues regarding due process in the Colorado juvenile justice system, resulting in a fair and accessible public defender’s office. The Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition uses multi-faceted techniques combining advocacy on behalf of juveniles in the criminal justice process with lawyers who have years of expertise in the court system. Ms. Dvorchak described how rotations in juvenile court were looked down upon when she was a young lawyer, viewed an onerous stepping-stone to arguing felony cases in adult court. Through her work with the CJDC, however, Ms. Dvorchak was able to reverse this phenomenon and create a system that provides just legal processes to Colorado’s juveniles.