Fall 2008 Issue

No Child Left Behind

Juvenile Justice Center works to improve child advocacy in the courts

Jeremy Jones

Twenty years ago, a school-yard fight or bullying a fellow classmate would have garnered a trip to the principal’s office, detention or suspension at worse. But these days those same acts can land a child in front of a judge to face possible felony charges.

And once a child (anyone under the age of 18) enters the juvenile justice system, he faces an uphill battle to get adequate legal representation, according to many legal experts and juvenile advocates.

In a scathing 2006 report, the National Juvenile Defender Center took issue with Florida’s juvenile delinquency system, arguing that it fails to provide children adequate legal representation. The report, “An Assessment of Access to Counsel & Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings in Florida,” states that “Florida’s juvenile courts cannot guarantee due process and accountability for youth without the participation of well-trained, well-resourced defense counsel.”

As a result, Barry’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando formed the Juvenile Justice Center, which trains other attorneys how to effectively represent juveniles in the court system. That much needed training is made available thanks in part to a $778,000 three-year grant from the Eckerd Family Foundation.

“Our partnership with the Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law at Barry University promotes our goal of giving a stronger voice to those young people who become involved with Florida’s Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems,” said Joe Clark, president of the Eckerd Family Foundation. “The Juvenile Justice Center is an innovative and cost effective approach to promoting effective advocacy, achieving just outcomes and ensuring the quality of our system of justice.”

The JJC, which opened in September 2007, partners with the Florida Public Defender’s Association and has two major components: law school student experience and support and training for juvenile defenders who are already licensed attorneys across the state.

The student experience aspect of the JJC is optional, meaning law students can take part in a children and families clinic as an elective. The primary focus of the center is the support and training of attorneys who handle juvenile cases.

“We want every child in the Florida’s delinquency system to have a capable and zealous advocate,” says Polly McIntyre, director of the JJC.

In the nearly 18 months the JJC has been open, it has conducted two state conferences on juvenile delinquency, with a third conference scheduled for December. The response has been promising, with each conference averaging nearly 40 attorneys from across the state – encouraging results for a juvenile system plagued with uncertainty and inadequate resources."

The conferences, in addition to monthly lunch-and-learn phone seminars and the JJC’s quarterly newsletter, provide attorneys the opportunity to learn more about representing juveniles while at the same time creating a support system.

“We are really the only real resource for juvenile training in the state. Any support they can get from us is great,” says Carrie Lee, staff attorney for the JJC. “A lot of the public defenders’ offices have in-house training but don’t focus on juveniles.”

The JJC’s training for juvenile defenders is divided into three main components: developing specialized skills to represent children, trial skills training and specialized law that solely addresses juvenile issues. Within these three main components are additional elements that lawyers must be familiar with in order to adequately and effectively represent children; they include adolescent development, communication skills, how to interview children and meeting the needs of the children and their families, to name a few.

This type of training has been neglected for so many years, says Usha Maharajhm, an assistant public defender in Martin County, Florida. Maharajhm, who has been representing juveniles for two-and-half years, participated in the JJC’s June training in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and believes that juvenile cases over the years have been looked at as inferior to adult cases.

“The whole juvenile system needs an overhaul; it’s terrible,” says Maharajhm. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. The training by the Juvenile Justice Center has been solely needed.”

Maharajhm estimates that she has represented 200 juveniles during her time as juvenile defender. While adequate legal defense is vital, adequate rehabilitation for these juveniles is just as important, which is an issue stressed as part of the JJC’s training. But even with all the troubles the juvenile system seems to be plagued with, it’s not enough to make Maharajhm consider anything else.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” she says of representing juveniles. “I had the opportunity to move to adult cases but I declined. There is too much work to be done here to leave it behind.” Maharajhm plans to continue participating in training sessions offered by the JJC.

Representing children is different than representing adults, says Gerry Glynn, director of clinical programs at the JJC. In juvenile court, children do not have their cases presented to a jury, but rather go through a bench trial in which the proceeding judge makes the decision regarding their case and sentencing. It’s also interesting to note that the U.S. Constitution says children do not have a right to bail or a jury trial, unlike adults. That doesn’t mean states can’t grant them those rights, says Glynn.

While it is a fact that some juvenile crimes are more serious than a school-yard fight, burglary was the felony most committed by juveniles in fiscal year 2006-2007, according to the Florida Department Juvenile Justice. Aggravated assault and battery was the second most committed felony. For those committing less serious delinquent acts, the courts aren’t always the best option, says Glenn.

“Most of these are kids just being kids. These issues should be addressed, but not always in the court system, but rather in the communities, at school and in the families,” says Glynn. “The courts are ill-equipped, and detaining children isn’t always in their best interest. The goal is to help the children and ensure they are treated properly. We have the opportunity to make them a valuable asset for the future.”

The fact is, says Lee, children can be rehabilitated. The issue at hand is that the courts and juvenile defenders have to make the commitment to the resources to make that happen. Often society doesn’t know how to or want to deal with these children, so they pawn them off on the courts, where almost immediately they are at a disadvantage.

“The same resources aren’t always provided for juveniles as they are for adults,” says Lee. “I think there is greater emphasis placed on adults because a lot of them are facing prison time, plus there is better pay for attorneys who handle adult cases. Sometimes you are at losing battle to begin with.”

And better pay elsewhere equals high turnover for juvenile defenders – another obstacle the JJC seeks to address. Less than 1 percent of juvenile cases are handled by attorneys hired by the family, according to McIntyre. Instead, public defenders, who are already handling several other cases at the same time, step in to represent the juvenile.

The heavy workloads and low pay that public defenders often deal with can impact how effectively a juvenile offender is represented. The high turnover rate of attorneys who handle juvenile cases means the JJC will always be training advocates.

“There are great lawyers who want to do this work, but the way the system is set up they get burned out and there is no support system,” says Glynn. “We are not just about training the advocates but consulting the system to change the way children are represented.”

The process to change the system got a little easier this summer when the JJC received additional support in the form of a $100,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. McArthur Foundation – the largest funder of juvenile justice programs in the country. The JJC is now one of only four programs in the country chosen by the McArthur Foundation for the work it does with juveniles. The grant allows the JJC to participate in a national work group set up by the McArthur Foundation to address juvenile justice issues across the country.

A portion of the grant – $25,000 – will be given to the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, which has formed a partnership with the JJC and the McArthur Foundation regarding juvenile advocacy training. Details of the partnership have yet to be determined.

The McArthur grant will also help the JCC develop ways to measure the success of its work. Measuring success has been difficult, McIntyre says, because most public defenders’ offices don’t keep statistics on juvenile cases and those cases are not public record. But with the link to the McArthur Foundation, the JJC will be able to consult with other national juvenile projects on how to best measure that success.

The immediate objective, however, is concentrating on the children by making sure they have not only adequate representation but have the representation they deserve, says Glenn

“If we don’t have good advocates in the system, then that system will fail the children.”