Note: This message was co-written by Tamara Steckler (NAPD Juvenile Committee Co-Chair and Attorney-in-Charge, at the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society) and Kim Dvorchak (Executive Director of the National Juvenile Defender Center).

Juvenile delinquency defense is an important and vital part of a functioning public defender system. Research shows that juveniles who experience incarceration are more likely to commit adult offenses than similarly situated juveniles who avoid incarceration. Juveniles in custody experience trauma, violence, disengagement from family and community and exacerbated mental health problems including suicide, and sexual abuse in prisons.  Dedicated high quality, properly resourced, developmentally-informed defense for juveniles creates profound opportunities for children accused of delinquent and status offenses.

While public defender offices are underfunded, and often stretched to and beyond the breaking point, we believe that defense in juvenile delinquency cases requires carefully cultivated and properly developed juvenile defenders. Skilled advocates who choose the juvenile defense field should be placed on an equal footing with their counterparts in adult criminal defense. The defense of juveniles is a highly complex and specialized practice. The role of the juvenile defender has evolved to require a challenging and complex skillset needed to meet core ethical obligations. Youth need attorneys who are well-versed in the science of adolescent development and who can leverage that understanding to help youth navigate the complexities of the justice system; present the legal and the social cases; promote accuracy in youthful client decision making; provide alternatives for system decision makers; enforce the client’s due process rights; and monitor institutional treatment, aftercare, and re-entry.  

The Juvenile Committee of the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) and the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) have developed a Self-Assessment Tool that is intended to create an opportunity to reflect on practices in your office that you may not have considered before. We hope you will complete this assessment and fairly consider the juvenile practice in your office.

We welcome your feedback and we stand ready to offer assistance, support, and advice to public defender offices who find they would like help developing the juvenile defense system they need and want, and that children charged with delinquency require.

You can access the NJDC-NAPD Juvenile Defense Self-Assessment Tool HERE