Defending with Education

This past summer I was fortunate enough to intern for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Juvenile Division.  There are so many wonderful things they do for their clients, but one of the most impressive things they offer is their Legal Education Advocacy Program.  Lauren Brady Blalock is the Education Lawyer for the program, and has provided the following program description:

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Juvenile Division is the recipient of a federal Block II Grant, which was awarded to fund the establishment of the Legal Educational Advocacy Program (LEAP). The Program is staffed by an education attorney and a youth advocate, who work as a team to address the myriad of education issues facing youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The program serves over 100 individual clients each year, all of whom are clients of the Public Defender’s Office. The attorney and youth advocate address issues such as special education, truancy, school discipline, academic achievement, and school safety. By assisting students to receive much needed services in a safe and appropriate school setting, the LEAP team is able to address issues that would ordinarily lead to these students being remanded into custody, sent out a placement outside of their communities or sent to juvenile hall for violations of probation. Program evaluation also indicates that the clients themselves have a more positive experience both in school and in court after participation in LEAP.

Education is an often overlooked tool for juvenile defense attorneys.  By implementing programs like San Francisco’s LEAP, attorneys are able to identify and address a child’s specific needs, and have alternative venues for resolving cases.  Even outside of the Public Defender’s Office, defense attorneys should become familiar with available area schools and education programs that could better serve their clients.  Making sure that a client’s education needs are properly met can often alleviate behavioral concerns.  Also, once a child’s needs are identified and a proper plan is in place, children are able to achieve more and can develop a positive outlook towards school.  Defending children requires knowledge of several areas of law.  I encourage child advocates to make education a priority when representing their young clients.

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Breaking: Big Victory for Juvenile Defenders in Illinois

Update from the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC):

Today, the Illinois Supreme Court issued their opinion in In re Austin M., reversing the decisions of the lower courts and remanding the case for new trial.  The decision is a great victory for the juvenile defense community!  The court held that it is a per se conflict of interest for an attorney to simultaneously function as both defense counsel and guardian ad litem (GAL) in a juvenile delinquency proceeding.

The court found that although the trial court never expressly appointed Austin’s attorney to act as GAL, both the trial court and the attorney perceived that to be his role.  The court agreed with Austin, that his attorney misperceived the role of juvenile defense counsel to be some type of hybrid, and as such he functioned as both GAL and defense counsel.  In so doing, counsel did not live up to his duty to provide zealous advocacy, in violation of Austin’s due process rights and the Illinois Juvenile Court Act.

Additionally, the court noted “[W]hen a minor is charged with a criminal offense – particularly one which may subject him or her to a lifetime of collateral consequences – the minor is entitled to an attorney who is dedicated to providing the minor with a zealous defense, an attorney who will hold the prosecution to its burden of proof.”

Notably, two justices who filed concurring and dissenting opinions, agreed that Austin’s delinquency adjudication should be reversed, but disagreed with the majority’s holding that the State had met its burden of proof and the decision to remand for a new trial. They instead held the evidence presented was insufficient to prove Austin guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Congratulations to Jackie Bullard with the Illinois Office of the State Appellate Defender, on a well fought victory, and to all of the attorneys and advocates who were involved in this case. In coming to this decision, the court also relied on an amicus brief filed by Loyola Civitas Childlaw Center; the Northwestern University School of Law Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center; the Juvenile Law Center; and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

The opinion is available at:

Harris County Chief Juvenile Public Defender Discusses The Challenges of Establishing A New Urban PD’s Office

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Several weeks ago, Steven Halpert, Juvenile Division Chief for the new Harris County Public Defender’s (PD) Office, spoke at the University of Houston Law Center. The discussion was co-sponsored by the University of Houston’s Center for Children, Law & Policy and three other student groups.

During the hourlong lunch event, Mr. Halpert discussed the challenges of opening a new PD’s office in the nation’s largest city without a public defender’s office. Before the office was opened, Houston was the only metropolitan area in the country without a PD’s office. Mr. Halpert also spoke about the office’s expected growth areas, as well as his vision for the juvenile section to be a resource for all Harris County attorneys defending juveniles.

Biography of Steven Halpert, J.D.

Steven Halpert joined the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in October 2011. Prior to joining the PD’s office, Mr. Halpert was a private practice criminal defense attorney for eight years. Prior to private practice, he was an Assistant District Attorney in Harris County from 2000 to 2003. Mr. Halpert has been the Treasurer of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association for the past four years, has served as Treasurer of the Houston Bar Association Criminal Law & Procedure Section, and is currently the chair of the Houston Bar Association Animal Law Section. He has been licensed to practice law in both Texas and Maryland since 2000. Steven Halpert received his J. D. from the University of Baltimore, graduating with Magna Cum Laude honors, in 1999. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1986 with a B.S. in Political Science.

The Development of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office

In August 2010, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense awarded Harris County a $4.1 million grant to establish a Public Defender Pilot Program. The grant can be renewed for four years, at which point the burden to fund the PD’s office will shift to Harris County.

In November 2010, Alex Bunin was appointed Chief Public Defender by the Harris County Commissioner’s Court. He was tasked with establishing a new office in one of the nation’s largest cities. Today, the Harris County PD’s office represents indigent clients in misdemeanor, felony, and juvenile courts. The office has felony trial, mental health, appellate, and juvenile divisions. In addition, the office has added four to five investigators and several counselors.

The juvenile division is the newest section of the office, opening in December 2011. Today, there are eight assistant public defenders working in the division. Juvenile division attorneys can be appointed by the judges of the 313th, 314th, and 315th Juvenile State District Courts.

Wrap-up of the Event

Steven Halpert discussed some of the challenges and frustrations of establishing a new PD’s office. For example, the grant received to establish the PD’s office anticipated receiving PD appointments from all three juvenile courts. There is no requirement that juvenile judges must appoint attorneys from the PD’s office.Therefore, judges can continue to appoint private attorneys if they choose. However, one juvenile judge has chosen not to appoint attorneys from the PD’s office at all. Mr. Halpert explained that this judge has stated that he wishes his court to be a “control” group that will help demonstrate whether the PD’s office has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Because of judicial hesitancy to appoint public defenders, as well as other circumstances, Mr. Halpert expressed some frustration with the amount of appointments his office was receiving. He stated that the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense grant was preconditioned on the expectation that his office would receive one out of every four juvenile appointments in Harris County juvenile courts. To make up for the “control” group court that has chosen not to appoint PDs, Mr. Halpert would need to receive nearly 35% of appointments from the remaining two courts. According to Mr. Halpert, this is an unreasonably high number.

Steven Halpert envisions the juvenile division of the Harris County PD’s office to be an aid to the private bar. He wants to “shed the myth” that the PD’s office should be feared by private attorneys. The need for private attorneys will always be present because co-actors cannot both be represented by the same office or firm. The crimes that juveniles are accused of often occur with a co-actor. Therefore, even if one juvenile is appointed to represent a juvenile, a private attorney will always be necessary to represent the co-actor.

In addition, Mr. Halpert sees his office as playing an advocacy role in changing some of the rules and procedures that make it difficult for all juvenile defense attorneys to zealously represent their clients. He provided an example of working with other Texas public defender offices and the Harris County District Attorney’s office to make offense reports more readily available for defense attorneys.

One particularly bright spot in the discussion came toward the end of the lunch hour. Many attorneys guide their juvenile clients toward probation, with the hope that after the probation period their clients will be able to have the claims against them dismissed and their records sealed. Mr. Halpert cited a dismal statistic that 40-50% of all juveniles are back in court within six months on a probation violation. Mr. Halpert expressed his inclination to avoid probation pleas when a plausible defense was available.

The Harris County Public Defender’s Office was established to provide top-notch representation for the indigent, as well as raise the level of representation throughout the defense bar. Hopefully, the attorneys working in the new PD’s office won’t be stifled by the overwhelming caseloads and low payment rates that often burden private attorneys. As the juvenile division grows from infancy into an established office, attorneys and families across Harris County hope that the office will lead the way in providing the best quality representation that truly advocates for clients’ wishes.