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May | June 2016

Youth's Right to Counsel

Hello. I’m Bob Listenbee, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Nearly 50 years have passed since the United States Supreme Court's historic ruling in the In re Gault case, which established the right to counsel for youth in delinquency cases. Despite the decades that have elapsed since that landmark decision, the promise of In re Gault has yet to become a reality for all of America’s youth.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2003 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, 42 percent—that's less than one-half—of all youth in custody reported they had a lawyer. And just 50 percent of those held in detention facilities had a lawyer.

The message is clear: We have a lot to do before we can truly fulfill the promise of In re Gault.


Early access to competent and zealous counsel can make an enormous difference in a young person’s life. When involved early, a juvenile defense attorney can collaborate with social workers to place youth into pre- and postarrest diversion programs, or identify and address their needs without going through the adjudicatory process. This not only saves time and money; more importantly, it lowers the chances that youth—especially those who have been affected by trauma—will be retraumatized through their involvement in the system.

We know that children and youth who are not represented by qualified counsel—

  • Often end up in the adult criminal justice system.
  • Enter into poor plea agreements without full understanding of the consequences.
  • And are subject to violations of their rights to due process and equal protection.


We also know that these indefensible outcomes disproportionately impact socioeconomically disadvantaged children—and children of color.


The need for competent counsel is just as vital after youth have served their time in detention or out-of-home placement. At the postdisposition stage, counsel can help youth overcome the collateral consequences that could deny them access to adequate housing, the opportunity to continue their education, or the ability to obtain gainful employment.


To be sure, we've made progress since In re Gault—but there is still much work to be done. All children and youth in our nation must have access to legal counsel. Children ought to be presumed indigent by virtue of their status as minors and dependents. And, they must have early access to well-qualified, well-resourced, specialized counsel as well as quality postdisposition representation.


At the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, we’ve made indigent defense an integral component of our juvenile justice reform efforts. Along with our colleagues at Access to Justice and the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice, and our many partners in the juvenile justice field, we are working to ensure every young person involved in the justice system receives quality representation—regardless of race or social status. We are committed to fulfilling the constitutionally guaranteed pledge of our justice system—which is equal justice for all.


Thank you for listening.