Youth Defense System Transformation

We are committed to strengthening youth defense systems as a mechanism to fight for the liberation of all youth.

Every day across the country, young people’s constitutional rights are under attack. Children are surveilled, arrested, and punished for behaviors that have been scientifically and legally recognized as a normal part of adolescence. This reality deeply and disproportionately harms children from Black, Native/Indigenous, and Latino/a communities who are caught in a tangled web of oppressive structures in our country. 

The juvenile legal system is one of many structures rooted in white-dominant hierarchies that strip away an equitable chance for all children to experience healthy development and opportunities to thrive, under the guise of paternalism. With the support of intertwining structures of racism, the harms of the juvenile legal system have played out exactly as designed. 

Part of this design is the de-prioritization of youth defense. Despite the constitutional mandate that all youth are entitled to a lawyer who will zealously fight on their behalf, states have openly disregarded their duty to create, fund, and invest in robust youth defense systems that are equipped to support youth defenders in providing the level of representation that both the constitution demands and the youth in our country deserve.  

Youth defenders are the only ones with the legal mandate to assert the rights of youth, and youth defenders are the only ones positioned to yield their power to youth and communities. Yet, due to the deliberate indifference of states in building strong youth defense systems, youth defenders are regularly inundated with crippling workloads, paired with lack of training, supervision, and support. As a result, young people are left to be processed in a legal machinery that defaults to caging children, especially those who exist outside of white, middle-class norms—too often with an empty promise of counsel.  

The Gault Center believes that building a specialized corps of youth defenders is the key to liberation. Building robust youth defense systems will ensure that youth defenders have the right resources to fully satisfy the constitutional promise of counsel and in so doing, fight for a transformed system under a collective vision of freeing all youth from systemic injustices. One day, we hope to live in a disentangled and equitable society where all children across race, ability, and gender identity and sexual orientation no longer face carceral threats to their development and instead are free to shape their own futures.

Until that day, the Gault Center is committed to building and strengthening youth defense systems so that all youth defenders are equipped to disrupt injustice and fight for the liberation of all youth.

System Standards as a Tool for Transformation

"The Gault Center has developed a truly innovative and remarkable tool for advocates and policymakers: the National Youth Defense System Standards. These Standards will help transform youth defense systems and ensure that children's constitutional rights are upheld. The National Youth Defense System Standards are truly groundbreaking. They are the first comprehensive framework directly derived from historical Department of Justice §12601 actions and prior Statements of Interests co-authored by the Office of Access to Justice and the Civil Rights Division.

"The standards illustrate the powerful results that can happen when there is collaboration between stakeholders and Department of Justice, producing work that is not only pioneering but immensely beneficial for youth defenders and the communities that you serve. These new standards can empower policymakers, advocates, and youth defenders to transform youth defense systems, and they can also build on and amplify the foundations laid by the work of the Department of Justice."

Rachel Rossi, Director, Office for Access to Justice, U.S. Department of Justice

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