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OJJDP Calls on States to Strengthen Youth Defense Systems

Blog By OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan (April 2023)

By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator

On May 15, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark In re Gault ruling affirmed children’s constitutional right to counsel, a holding intended to remedy significant liberty and due process deprivations for our nation’s youth. The Gault case began when Gerald Francis Gault and a friend were taken into custody after a neighbor reported that they were making lewd, prank phone calls. Gerald was subject to a six-month probation order at the time that resulted from him being with another boy who had stolen a wallet.

Gerald was taken to the Children's Detention Home, and his parents were not notified. At a later hearing, a judge committed Gault to a juvenile detention facility until he reached age 21. He was 15 at the time. He was denied rights guaranteed in the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including the right to counsel.

Today, jurisdictions across the nation continue to process young people through the juvenile justice system. More than 25,000 youth are sent to juvenile detention and correctional facilities each year.  The majority of them are adjudicated for non-violent behavior including property, drug, and public order offenses. In too many cases, young people are confined without receiving the constitutional protections that In Re Gault affirmed. Young people may be appointed a defense attorney too late or not at all.

Even when young people do receive an attorney, many states do not require or support specialization for youth defense lawyers. And most states do not automatically appoint a defender for youth, forcing youth to navigate a complex eligibility system to access their right to counsel. The impact of these shortcomings falls disproportionately on Black, Latino/a, and Native/Indigenous youth, who are overrepresented and underserved in the juvenile legal system.

OJJDP is providing funding to help ensure that every young person who comes into conflict with the law is automatically appointed a highly qualified, well-resourced attorney who specializes in the defense of youth. Given their age, all youth should be presumed indigent and deemed eligible to be appointed an attorney. Young people deserve a defender who has the training, support, resources, and knowledge to assert their rights and expressed interests. States have a responsibility to establish and uphold systems where youth defenders can be effective advocates for our young people.

On the 50th anniversary of In re Gault, OJJDP's national youth defense training and technical assistance (TTA) provider, the Gault Center (formerly the National Juvenile Defender Center), released Access Denied, a snapshot of the ways in which young people continue to be denied their constitutional right to counsel.

On the 55th anniversary of In re Gault, the Gault Center released Cause of Action: Fulfilling the Promises of Gault, calling on states to uphold the rights affirmed in the Gault decision. The request was buttressed with the Department of Justice's §12601 authority to hold states and localities accountable for failures to uphold the constitutional rights of children and youth.

Today, 56 years have passed since the Supreme Court told America that "unbridled discretion, however benevolently motivated, is frequently a poor substitute for principle and procedure." The Court understood that a state representative, such as a judge, cannot consistently act in the best interests of a court-involved youth. There will be inconsistencies and injustices, as in Gault’s case. Therefore, we must have clear principles and procedures that protect the interests of the child—by providing representation and affording due process. Yet, some jurisdictions still fail to uphold the mandates of In Re Gault.

OJJDP stands behind the establishment of effective youth defense delivery systems. We support TTA and demonstration grants to catalyze sustainable improvements to youth defense. And we stand ready to engage with states, Tribes, and localities committed to upholding the promise of Gault.

Date Published: May 31, 2023