Friday, February 13, 2009

Implications of PA case for juvenile courts

Today's New York Times has coverage of the astonishing case that I blogged about yesterday, on the two juvenile judges in Pennsylvania who were accepting kickbacks to send children to jail. Of interest to my readers, the case is calling public attention to juveniles' right to an attorney.

Children have a constitutional right to legal representation under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967. But in Pennsylvania and at least 20 other states, they can waive this right. Some say juveniles should be required to have a lawyer when they appear in court, as is the law in three states (Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina).

"The juvenile system, by design, is intended to be a less punitive system than the adult system, and yet here were scores of children with very minor infractions having their lives ruined," Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, told the Times. "There was a culture of intimidation surrounding this judge and no one was willing to speak up about the sentences he was handing down."

Last year, according to the Times story, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the Juvenile Law Center about more than 500 juveniles who had appeared before Judge Ciavarella without legal representation. The court originally rejected the petition, but recently reversed that decision.

Given the secrecy surrounding juvenile court proceedings, some are also calling for greater public access - a double-edged sword that may cause unintended negative consequences, in my opinion. As the former director of the state's Office of Juvenile Justice pointed out, probation officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are already present in court and sworn to protect the interests of children; "it’s pretty clear those people didn't do their jobs."

The excellent followup article is here.

Photo credit: publik16 (Creative Commons license)

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