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Improving Juvenile Indigent Defense



In May 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in In re Gault that established the right to counsel for youth in delinquency cases. Despite progress made nearly 55 years since that decision, the promise of In re Gault has yet to become a reality for many of America's youth. Research funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in Indigent Defense for Juveniles indicates that less than half of all youth in custody (42 percent) and just 50 percent of youth in detention facilities report that they have a lawyer.

Youth defenders play a critical role in ensuring fairness, equity, and due process for youth, reducing the risk of reoffending by addressing collateral consequences and improving youth outcomes, and in preserving public confidence in the juvenile justice systems.


Enhancing Juvenile Indigent Defense

Through this program, OJJDP is working to ensure that all youth involved with the juvenile justice systems have equal access to specialized, well-resourced, youth defense counsel, and that the nation's youth defenders have the training, resources, and support they need to be effective.

Grantees use program funds to:

  • assess and improve the quality and availability of legal services and resources
  • develop and implement training and programs, and improve policies and practice for youth defenders in line with National Juvenile Defense Standards
  • ensure that youth have access to resources that address the collateral consequences of justice system involvement
  • develop holistic service models that incorporate both social and legal services
  • expand and strengthen appellate and post-disposition advocacy
  • improve juvenile court data collection and increase data-driven decision making. 

Training and Technical Assistance

Under a cooperative agreement from OJJDP, the National Juvenile Defender Center provides technical assistance to youth defenders and youth defense agencies across the country; conducts specialized youth defense trainings for public defenders and court-appointed counsel; supports the creation of specialized youth defender units; and develops tools, training, and resources specific to identified regional, state, and local needs. The center maintains a clearinghouse of information on youth defense and children's constitutional rights.


Between Fiscal Years (FY) 2017 and 2021, OJJDP awarded more than $9 million toward improving the quality and availability of youth defense nationwide.

  • Fiscal Year 2021—$2.2 million
  • Fiscal Year 2020—$1.7 million
  • Fiscal Year 2019—$1.8 million
  • Fiscal Year 2018—$1.7 million
  • Fiscal Year 2017—$1.6 million

From the Field

Youth defense is an area of highly specialized practice requiring distinct skills and knowledge. To support development of that expertise, the Utah Indigent Defense Commission's Utah Statewide Juvenile Delinquency Defense Training and Sustainable Capacity Project offers an ongoing quarterly training program for attorneys appointed to represent youth across the state. The Commission is developing a series of five youth defense practice toolkits: a Juvenile Record Expungement Toolkit, a Toolkit for Representing Youth Charge with Sex Offenses, a Statewide Contacts and Resource Guide, a Timelines and New Practitioner Toolkit, and a Suppression Hearings Toolkit. With an eye to building sustainable capacity, the project fosters a statewide community of defenders through mentorship initiatives and intensive outreach work. The project also aims to amplify youth experience and center the importance of system-involved voices through a series of panels featuring young adults with prior involvement in the delinquency system.

Supported by a grant from OJJDP, Ohio's Hamilton County Public Defender Juvenile Division developed an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to youth defense. The division extended services for youth defendants beyond traditional courtroom representation by integrating a social worker and mitigation specialist into its service delivery model. The division also established a participatory defense network to improve outcomes for youth within the county. Participatory defense is a community organizing model for youth involved in the justice system, their families, and their communities to positively impact case outcomes. Together with its community partners, the Hamilton County Public Defender Juvenile Division provided staff and volunteers with rigorous training on the principles and tools to effectively implement participatory defense.




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Date Created: October 9, 2020