National Juvenile Defender Center releases assessment of Michigan's system of providing lawyers for youth

WASHINGTON, DC — The National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) on June 29 released an assessment of access to and quality of juvenile defense counsel in Michigan: Overdue for Justice: An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Juvenile Defense Counsel in Michigan.

The report highlights the exclusion of juvenile defense from current sweeping reforms of Michigan’s criminal defense system and finds that the quality of defense counsel for children in Michigan’s delinquency system is inadequate to ensure constitutional guarantees for children are upheld.

“Recent events have made clear that the legal system can have a devastating impact on youth, especially youth of color,” said NJDC Executive Director Mary Ann Scali.

“We hope this report supports Michigan leaders who are ready and willing to address the shortcomings of a juvenile defense system that fails to consistently provide young people their constitutional right to meaningful representation.”

The report notes that Michigan is working to improve its adult criminal defense system, but finds that “juvenile defense practices are not subject to any state standards, receive no state funding, and have no consistent monitoring or enforcement in place to ensure youth receive effective counsel at all critical stages.”

“The fundamental constitutional right to counsel with the resources to provide an effective defense is a key component of a public safety system that values justice,” said Michigan Indigent Defense Commission Executive Director Loren Khogali.

“All Michiganders, no matter their age, need and deserve high-quality representation.”

The assessment found that juvenile defense lawyers often lack sufficient training, compensation, supervision, and other resources to ensure effective representation.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth T. Clement has supported the assessment since its inception:

“There is a constitutional and statutory obligation to ensure that youth receive the assistance of counsel in delinquency matters, but it is meaningless unless we have well-trained lawyers, skilled in working with children, to zealously advocate for their rights.”

The report addresses other barriers to due process—such as the crippling effects of fees and costs assessed to children and families, disparate treatment, shackling, and bail provisions—and includes recommendations for actions that state and local leaders can take to improve the quality of juvenile defense.

“We see every day how proper state funding, standards, and oversight can give the mostly poor people and people of color caught up in the criminal legal system a voice and an advocate,” said Jonathan Sacks, Director of Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Officer.

“We hope this assessment report is the first step toward long overdue action for Michigan’s children.”

NJDC’s assessments, part of a nationwide effort to strengthen juvenile defense advocacy, are comprehensive examinations of the systemic and institutional components necessary to ensure young people have high-quality legal representation.

Assessment findings are based upon interviews, court observations, and research by a team of experts who analyzed Michigan’s juvenile defense systems and delinquency courts over the period of a year.

The Michigan report is the 25th state assessment NJDC has released. Three additional state assessments are underway and scheduled for release in upcoming months. All of NJDC’s state assessments can be found online.

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