Equal justice for small

October 24, 2003

KIDS IN TROUBLE with the law need help navigating the system, but in a number of Maryland's cities and counties, they don't get it.

A report released this week by the American Bar Association describes courts across the state where kids who have been arrested appear before judges without ever having seen a public defender. In effect, they are their own lawyers in proceedings that determine if they will go free or to a detention center. In other districts' courts, judges exhort kids and parents to go to the defender's office and get representation. In still others, judges refuse to start a hearing unless a lawyer is standing beside the child.

What does this mean? It could be the difference between going home with parents until the next hearing or being sent to Cheltenham Youth Facility. Between pleading delinquent and building a permanent record, or asking for a mutual postponement, which would clear the slate if completed correctly.

Based on the observations of courts statewide, the report estimates that as many as half of all juveniles appearing in state courts are waiving their right to counsel, many because they don't understand the consequences, some because public defenders aren't immediately available.

That's unacceptable.

Children aren't considered able to sign contracts, or even go on field trips without a permission slip, yet they can all alone face a prosecutor and a judge on a matter that could forever change their lives?

Juveniles in every county deserve an advocate, just as adults have. Baltimore City juveniles have that chance. The city's District Court has a regular juvenile delinquency arraignment docket - the court introduction to their case - that is staffed by assistant public defenders who explain what is happening to them and what it means not to have a lawyer. So it is rare that a Baltimore child waives the right to counsel.

But some counties skip this step: A judge may tell a child she has the right to a public defender, and then immediately start hearing the case. So it's up to the child to ask to stop proceedings until she and her parents can get representation - and that's not usually the kind of situation where kids speak up.

This is happening because state law doesn't require a formal arraignment before starting juvenile cases. Maryland legislators should revise the statutes to close this loophole and ensure that children make the right decision on getting representation before their cases are heard. And other jurisdictions should follow the city's lead, with the state Office of the Public Defender pushing to collaborate with district judges and other court leaders to ensure juveniles access to legal assistance.

The opportunity for legal representation is a right for all, no matter their age.

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