This is an archive of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP's) electronic newsletter OJJDP News @ a Glance. The information in this archived resource may be outdated and links may no longer function. Visit our website at for current information.
May | June 2016

Gault at 50: An Unrealized Promise

Image of scale of justiceOn May 15, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, In re Gault, which ensured the right to a lawyer for children involved in juvenile court proceedings. Yet, nearly 50 years later, the promise of due process and equal protection for all children facing delinquency proceedings remains unfulfilled in many of our nation’s juvenile courts.

Juvenile defenders play a critical role in ensuring fairness and equity for children. They are the only professionals in juvenile court proceedings who are legally required to represent the expressed interests of the child, and they protect the due process rights of their young clients by filing pretrial motions, challenges to evidence, and appeals. Yet, according to OJJDP’s 2003 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, less than half of all youth in custody (42 percent) and just half of youth in detention facilities (50 percent) report that they have a lawyer.

“We know that children and youth who are not represented by qualified counsel have poor outcomes. They are often transferred to the adult criminal justice system, enter into poor plea agreements without understanding the consequences, and are subject to violations of their rights to due process and equal protection,” said OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee in his remarks at a kickoff event in Washington, DC, for the National Juvenile Defender Center’s (NJDC’s) Gault at 50 campaign.

About two-thirds of youth in confinement pose little risk to public safety; they are there for nonviolent offenses like drug violations and petty theft, and status offenses like running away or breaking curfew. When involved early, juvenile defense attorneys can prevent confinement and ensure that youth are placed into more appropriate, more effective pre- and postarrest diversion programs. In addition, defense attorneys can collaborate with social workers to identify and address the specific needs of these youth through community-based services that address trauma, mental and behavioral health, and substance abuse issues.

At the postdisposition stage, defense attorneys guard against abuses within juvenile justice facilities and help reduce the long-term collateral consequences of an adjudication, including barriers to public housing, educational advancement, and gainful employment. These unintended consequences of juvenile and criminal records can follow youth well into adulthood, impeding their successful reintegration into society and increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

Following are a few examples of OJJDP’s ongoing work to improve legal service delivery systems and build the capacity of the juvenile defense bar:

  • Smart on Juvenile Justice: Enhancing Youth Access to Justice Initiative. Launched in 2015, this project provides funding to develop statewide model juvenile indigent defense legal delivery systems, establish state or regional resource centers designed to leverage resources and collect and analyze data to measure the effectiveness of specific initiatives, and deliver national training and technical assistance to states, tribes, and local communities.
  • Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program. OJJDP is partnering with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to support collaborations between civil legal aid programs and public housing authorities. These efforts support young peoples’ successful transition back to their families and communities following secure confinement or out-of-home placement, through expungement and sealing of records and direct legal services to overcome collateral consequences that impede youth’s access to adequate housing, education, and employment.
  • Juvenile Indigent Defense National Clearinghouse. OJJDP continues to improve indigent defense representation and the overall level of systemic advocacy by providing the juvenile defense bar with ongoing training, technical support, capacity-building assistance, and leadership opportunities. Assistance ranges from practical training and resources for individual juvenile defenders to helping state, local, and tribal governments interested in assessing and improving their juvenile defense delivery systems.

“We do all of this,” Administrator Listenbee said, “because we believe that all young people should have timely access to qualified and well-resourced counsel at every stage of juvenile justice proceedings, including through postdisposition representation.”


To learn more about OJJDP’s Enhancing Youth Access to Justice initiative, Juvenile Reentry Assistance program, and Juvenile Indigent Defense National Clearinghouse, visit the Office’s website.

To access information about Gault at 50, a year-long public awareness and advocacy campaign, visit the National Juvenile Defender Center website. NJDC’s National Juvenile Defense Standards, which set forth a framework for representation that is anchored in the law, science, and professional codes of responsibility, is also available on the website.