A solid defense

February 18, 2004

WHEN FACING a judge in juvenile court, Maryland youths are entitled to be represented by a lawyer, but the current system isn't designed to make sure they have one. The General Assembly should move quickly to correct the problem.

As many as half of all juveniles appearing in Maryland courts are waiving their right to counsel, according to an American Bar Association report released last fall. In some counties, kids are arrested and appear before judges without ever having talked with a public defender, who could explain their case and their options.

Under current law, a judge may tell a child he has the right to have a lawyer on his side, then immediately start hearing his case. It is up to the youth to call for a delay until he and his parents can arrange for a private attorney or public defender.

That rarely happens; court isn't a place where kids usually speak up, and it is the rare child who is expert in the details of defense procedure. Even in cases where they could be sent into detention centers indefinitely, juveniles end up acting as their own lawyers - a role few adults could perform.

In some Circuit Courts, such as those in Baltimore, judges refuse to start the hearing unless a child has a lawyer standing beside him. That's what legislation now before the General Assembly would require statewide - with exceptions for cases involving juveniles who knowledgeably and willingly waive their right and can explain their decision to a judge's satisfaction.

Representing every child would increase caseloads for public defenders in some counties.

But a budget increase for more staff for the Office of the Public Defender is already in the works and should more than offset the additional work, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

The bill awaits a hearing and vote in the House Judiciary Committee; the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee already has recommended its version of the bill to the full Senate. The votes should be a no-brainer all the way up the line.

Access to representation should be standard - and it should be assumed, not considered a perk for which one must ask.

All Marylanders deserve a knowledgeable advocate in their corner, whatever their age.

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