Almost fifty years ago, on May 15, 1967, the Supreme Court decided that children accused of crimes were entitled to the same constitutional rights as adults, ensuring that every child in the criminal justice system should be afforded the rights of due process, including the right to confront witnesses, the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney. Prior to 1967, children were routinely tossed into the delinquency system without any legal guide, often completely unaware of the charges against them. Unfortunately, fifty years later, children in the juvenile system do not have a clear understanding of the system in which they are now immersed, and do not have legal counsel to properly advise them.
The juvenile system is designed with an eye towards rehabilitation, not necessarily punishment. As such, it is easy to question why children need attorneys at all. Many of these children need the various services the system can provide, so the focus of the delinquency system has been directed away from “guilty” or “innocent” to whether governmental or other services are needed. Though based on the desire to “help” these children, sometimes those who are a part of the system forget that they are ignoring the simple fact that the juvenile system is still a court of law and these services come with potentially life-altering consequences. For instance, not all juvenile records are closed and a delinquency determination can follow a child into adulthood, for example limiting school and work opportunities. To provide services, a court must find a child guilty of a crime, thus bringing a child into the criminal justice system who may not belong there.
The legal system can be incredibly confusing for adults. Despite the often-complicated legal procedures, children are far more likely to proceed in court without representation. Some studies suggesting that as many as 75% of children in court proceed to a final outcome without an attorney. Children are generally unaware of their basic rights, including their right to counsel, making enormous life decisions without an advocate in the court room. This means the vast majority of children are making decisions that could affect the rest of their lives without anyone to explain to them their rights and the legal consequences of their decisions. Children, often unrepresented, are also more likely to make decisions based on the now, such as choosing to plead guilty to a crime they may not have committed to get out of detention or because they think that is what the judge wants to hear.
Children also have additional rights in the criminal justice system. A child is not supposed to be interrogated by police officers unless a parent or guardian is present. The danger of an unrepresented minor in an interrogation room is very real and was brought to a national platform in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”. While the story focused on Steven Avery, his nephew, Brendan Dassey, was a painful example of what can happen when a child goes unrepresented. The child confessed to being part of a murder, all the while explaining that he needed to get back to school for a test. The ramifications of that confession will haunt him for the rest of his life. A federal judge recently overturned Brendan’s conviction, recognizing how children are subject to suggestion, particularly those with mental limitations. The Court also found that some police tactics may not be coercive for an adult, but are absolutely coercive for children. It is a painful reminder of how important it is for children to be represented by legal counsel at all stages of the process.
While not all children caught in the criminal justice system will confess to murder or even be interrogated by a police officer, it is important to ensure they have a clear voice and advocate. Every child is entitled to counsel and it is a right that should be exercised. Linda Freeman has spent much of her career as an attorney representing children in all areas of the court system. Should you or someone you know be in need of an attorney for a child, or even think the child may need representation, do not hesitate to call the Thurman Law Firm to discuss the options available with a dedicated and experienced juvenile attorney.