Expanding Post-Disposition Representation

Young people must be represented by a specialized youth defender until they are free from state control.

Across the country, children’s access to counsel often ends as soon as the juvenile court hearings in their delinquency cases conclude, even though they may be incarcerated or under state supervision for years. This time after sentencing, known in the juvenile legal system as the post-disposition phase, is often the longest and most difficult phase of the delinquency process.

Post-disposition legal representation helps young people understand complex legal situations, comply with confusing supervision conditions, stay safe in harmful and even dangerous facilities, and navigate the transition from court involvement, incarceration, and supervision back to their families, communities, and schools. Despite these clear benefits, most youth across the country are left to navigate their incarceration, supervision, and reentry alone.

In 2020, after the District of Columbia Court of Appeals released its decision in In re N.H.M., expanding DC youths’ access to post-disposition counsel, Open City Advocates, which represented N.H.M., contacted the Gault Center to explore how to support the expansion of post-disposition representation in other jurisdictions. After conducting research and interviews with youth defenders around the country, we jointly published A Call to Expand Post-Disposition Representation of Youth in the Juvenile Legal System, along with the toolkit below.

We must expand the post-disposition representation of youth in the juvenile legal system:

  • Children should be represented by qualified youth defense counsel throughout the duration of their juvenile court involvement and state supervision.
  • Post-disposition representation should be provided both to children who are incarcerated or otherwise removed from their homes and to youth who are not removed from their home but are under probation supervision or other continuing court orders.
  • Post-disposition representation should be holistic and capable of advocating for youth in appellate and other legal challenges, as well as the many systems implicated by juvenile court involvement, including education, housing, correctional facilities, health and treatment programs, probation, immigration, and others.

To make this a reality, youth defenders and advocates, court practitioners, and policymakers must work to reform state and local rules, laws, standards, and practices:

  • Jurisdictions must ensure children are represented by qualified youth defense counsel throughout the duration of their court involvement and supervision and fully fund youth defense agencies and organizations to provide specialized, holistic defense services to all youth brought into the delinquency system.
  • Youth defenders and youth advocates must challenge local practices and state laws that limit their ability to represent their youth clients after disposition.
  • Youth advocates must work to adopt standards of practice that recognize the critical importance of post-disposition representation and state laws that require youth to be represented by qualified youth defense counsel throughout the duration of their juvenile court involvement and state supervision.
  • Youth defenders should advance arguments that children have a constitutional right to counsel throughout the duration of their post-disposition incarceration and supervision.

You can learn more about this issue on our dedicated Post-Disposition issue page.