State Assessments

Examining youth defense systems across the country to safeguard children’s constitutional rights

What's At Stake

The enforcement of children’s due process rights is intricately connected to the strength of a state’s youth defense delivery system. States are constitutionally mandated to ensure that children facing delinquency proceedings have access to a competent, meaningful, and zealous lawyer. The establishment and maintenance of a youth defense delivery system is a critical component of safeguarding children’s constitutional right to counsel. State practices in delivering youth defense services vary widely not only across the country but also across state borders. The Gault Center’s state assessments are an effort to better understand how children facing juvenile court experience their constitutional right to counsel by examining the delivery of youth defense in each state.

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What You Need To Know

Scope of Assessments

The assessments provide comprehensive examinations of the systemic and institutional components necessary to ensure that young people have high-quality legal representation. In addition to gathering general data and information about the structure of the youth defense system, assessments examine issues related to the timing of appointment of counsel, the frequency with which children waive their right to counsel and under what conditions they do so, resource allocation, attorney compensation, supervision and training, and access to investigators, experts, social workers, and support staff. Assessments also highlight promising approaches and innovative practices within the state and offer recommendations to improve areas where challenges are identified.

States Examined

To date, the Gault Center has conducted a total of 28 assessments. For each assessment, the Gault Center publishes a detailed report, including a set of findings and recommendations to improve areas where barriers and challenges to children’s access to counsel were identified. These reports are part of a nationwide effort to secure children’s constitutional right to counsel by improving the delivery of youth defense across the country.

Impact

Following the release of each assessment report, the Gault Center works closely with the state to assist with the implementation of our recommendations. In addition, defenders, judges, legislatures, bar associations, and others have acted to implement recommendations from their respective state assessments, significantly improving children’s meaningful access to counsel.

Our Current Efforts

Kansas

On December 2, 2020, the Gault Center published the Kansas assessment, Limited Justice: An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Juvenile Defense Counsel in Kansas.

The assessment found that while Kansas has succeeded in ensuring that nearly every youth who faces charges in delinquency court is represented by counsel at most stages of the proceedings, the quality of defense young people receive far too often does not fulfill constitutional obligations, meet national standards, or satisfy professional responsibility requirements. The report addresses a number of barriers to due process—such as the crippling effects of fees and costs assessed to children and families, disparate treatment of youth of color, and a wholly unmonitored youth defense practice—and includes recommendations for actions Kansas can take to improve the quality of youth defense.

Oregon

On September 8, 2020, the Gault Center published the Oregon assessment, Advancing Youth Justice: An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Juvenile Defense in Oregon.

The assessment found that while Oregon’s public defense system has adopted minimum qualifications and best practices for attorneys representing young people in delinquency cases, an absence of meaningful oversight and enforcement has left some youth defenseless in juvenile court. Some of the key findings and recommendations relate to youth being unrepresented during interrogation, minimal advocacy to address racial disparities, infrequent challenges to assessment of fees and costs, and minimal access to counsel after disposition.

New Hampshire

On August 19, 2020, the Gault Center published the New Hampshire assessment, Undervalued: An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Counsel in New Hampshire.

The assessment found that an absence of dedicated youth defense practitioners in New Hampshire leads to many youth waiving their rights and facing long-term consequences. Nearly every aspect of the defense system is set up to devalue juvenile delinquency cases, often leading to youth receiving constitutionally deficient counsel. The report encourages New Hampshire to implement a strong, well-resourced, specialized youth defense system, support youth defense specialization, implement state standards for youth defense attorney qualifications and performance, and automatically appoint counsel for all youth prior to their first court appearance to uphold children’s constitutional rights.

What Can You Do?

Building effective youth defense delivery systems is critical in protecting children’s constitutional rights. Below are ways you can connect and engage with the youth defense community to develop strategies around elevating and strengthening youth rights and youth defense systems in your state.

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