Study: Del representation falls short of constitutional guarantees for children in court – The News Journal

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The quality of legal representation for Delaware youth falls short of fulfilling the constitutional guarantees of due process for children in court – especially for minorities, according to a report issued Wednesday by the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Even as the state makes significant headway on juvenile justice reform, the National Juvenile Defender Center said the quality of defense counsel for children in Delaware remains deeply concerning.

“The findings of this report underscore the importance of specialized lawyers for young
people in juvenile court. Amid great progress, the justice system will continue to fail children and communities when it denies young people their constitutional right to strong
representation,” said Mary Ann Scali, executive director of the Center, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting justice for children,

The shortcomings identified are not because of negligent lawyering, the study found. It pointed t o the juvenile court system, which it found lacks an awareness of the direct and collateral harms youth experience when adjudicated delinquent, especially when children are unnecessarily processed through court as a means to access court-based interventions.

“Rather than serve as advocates for children’s expressed interests, lawyers are encouraged to move clients quickly through adjudication with the goal of obtaining services, whether they are necessary or not,” the 88-page report said. 

The Center pointed to the Delaware Family Courts application of mandatory minimum sentences to some youth, despite research supporting developmentally informed, individualized justice for children. Serious racial inequities exist at all stages of delinquency proceedings across the state, with black and brown children receiving harsher treatment at every decision point.

Punitive practices like these make the need for zealous defenders essential.

While promising practices have been implemented statewide, there is still a troubling
absence of advocacy for youth both in and outside of the courtroom. Children are often
needlessly pulled deeper into the justice system with little regard for the collateral effects of court involvement.

“Few children, if any, are given the opportunity to talk to a lawyer before their first
appearance in court, where they face a potential loss of freedom,” Scali said. “Without a
lawyer at their side, young people’s ability to have a fair voice in the proceedings is
foreclosed.”

The report urges Delaware to address the pervasive racial disparities in the system; end
practices that disrupt due process for children, such as holding court hearings via
videoconference; and establish juvenile defense leadership and practice units to build a
dedicated cadre of lawyers who specialize in the representation of youth.

The Center’s study came at the request of the state’s Public Defender’s Office, which said it was interested in where it needed to improve. 

“This assessment reaffirms the Office of Defense Services’ commitment to the reform of Delaware’s juvenile defense system, partly through our legislative efforts in the last two years and future initiatives to come,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services for the state Public Defender’s Office. 

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill said the findings may not always be pretty, “but we have a positive track record for implementing the suggested changes and making Delaware a model for the rest of the country.”

“To do that, we must receive the appropriate level of funding to uphold Delaware’s constitutional obligation to provide effective and conflict-free representation for people charged with crimes,” O’Neill said.

This is a developing story. Check back with delawareonline.com for more information.

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, eparra@delawareonline.com or Twitter @eparra3.

 

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