Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Young people without lawyers costs all of us

Marc Schindler.

Marc Schindler

As a former public defender representing children in Baltimore’s juvenile court, I saw firsthand that when a child didn’t have access to a well-trained lawyer who could address the individual needs of their client, that child was more likely to be needlessly incarcerated when they could have been safely at home. And we know that incarceration comes at enormous expense to taxpayers, far beyond any limited public safety benefit. When fiscal barriers prevent children from receiving legal advocates that meet their needs, it costs all of us.

This week, the National Juvenile Defender Center – a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring excellence in juvenile defense – released a report marking the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court decision, In re Gault, that affirmed children’s right to counsel. NJDC’s “Access Denied: A national snapshot of states’ failure to protect children’s right to counsel,” documents our nation’s failure to meet the requirements under Gault, including the fiscal barriers placed on families getting their children the kind of attorneys they need to navigate the justice system.

The report showed that even though children are constitutionally guaranteed a right to counsel, only 11 states automatically make children eligible for an attorney based on their age, regardless of their financial status. In the other states, families may be left to scramble to find documents to verify their income, may fall just beneath a cut off to be eligible for an attorney, or may face a long, drawn-out process that results in a child not getting a lawyer at all.

“Access Denied” also shows that 36 states allow families to be charged fees for a public defender representing their child. Courts can charge a child’s family application fees, public defender fees, fees if the child is accused of a certain offense, or require reimbursement of attorney fees – all of which places the cost of getting a child the attorney they need on mostly low income families. In places like Alabama, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, low-income families may face hundreds of dollars in fees that can prevent their children from getting legal representation and avoiding deeper involvement in the justice system, such as being placed in a youth prison that is often far from their home.


Negative outcomes

The report also finds that only 1-in-5 states provide for meaningful access to a lawyer after sentencing. If a child faces challenges complying with a court order – including making an appointment with a probation officer, which often is scheduled during regular work hours and in communities where there public transportation is limited – a child can be back before the courts, and face legal decisions that might end up with them being incarcerated.

When a family can’t prove they don’t have the means to hire an attorney, they often have to pay some fee to obtain a juvenile public defender, or if there is no structure to allow a child to have representation after sentencing, taxpayers end up paying more because we couldn’t invest sooner in a child’s right to counsel.

In Maryland, it can cost taxpayers hundreds of dollars a day, or more than $100,000 a year to incarcerate a youth in a state-operated facility. Other data shows children who are confined are more likely to reoffend, more likely to rely on public assistance and less likely to work throughout their lives because they were incarcerated – negative outcomes that raise costs for all of us.

Some communities pay more than others when a child doesn’t have access to appropriate counsel: two-thirds of those youth confined are youth of color, meaning that the gap between the Supreme Court’s vision of providing lawyers for young people, at its core, is a racial justice issue.

A half century ago, the Supreme Court held that children are entitled to “the guiding hand of counsel” in court proceedings. Fifty years later, financial tests and cost charged to families mean when their children are ensnared in the justice system, the lack of a well-trained lawyer will mean these children are needlessly being incarcerated—raising costs for all of us.

Let’s not wait another half century to ensure children have kind of advocates they need in the courtroom – as guaranteed by the Supreme Court – to help them move past a brush with the law, successfully transition to adulthood, and contribute to a more vibrant economy for us all.

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. He can be reached at [email protected]