National Juvenile Justice Network is Hosting Several Events throughout October

In a Proclamation from the White House, President Biden officially claimed October 2021 as National Youth Justice Action Month. He called on Americans to “observe this month by taking action to support our youth and by participating in appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs in their communities.” [1] Heeding that call, I have provided events and actions that we can take throughout the month (and beyond) to support this year’s mission, “Acting to End Racism: Pursuing Equity through Policy.”[2]

  • The National Juvenile Justice Network is hosting several events throughout the month:
  • Tuesday, Oct. 12th 3:00-4:30 PM ET “Treat Kids as Kids: Stop the Adult Criminalization of Youth.” This workshop will focus on policy changes that ensure youth are not treated like adults, including ending youth interrogations, direct file reform, and repealing Juvenile Life Without Parole laws.
  • Monday, Oct. 18th 3:00-4:30 PM ET “Care Not Cages: Invest in Families and Community.” This workshop will focus on how states have begun closing youth prisons, ending contracts with for-profit residential treatment centers, and committed to reducing use of congregate care.
  • Monday, Oct. 18th through Friday, October 22nd “Virtual Hill Visits.” Participants are encouraged to schedule meetings with their federal delegations to discuss important youth justice issues. NJJN will provide information/training on pending federal legislation and materials.

To register for workshops, please visit https://www.tfaforms.com/4926781.

  • The Texas Network of Youth Services is hosting a Town Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 19th from 3:00-4:00 PM CDT where they will “explore how youth-serving providers can prevent justice involvement and best support young people involved in the juvenile justice system.” For information and to RSVP, please visit http://tnoys.org/events/.
  • Support legislation aimed at reinvesting in America’s Youth. As part of his Fiscal Year 2022 budget, President Biden proposed $800 million for juvenile justice and youth reentry programs. If passed, this would be the highest allocation in the history of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act.[3] Contact your Members of Congress and demand they pass a budget that adequately addresses the needs of our children.

Now more than ever, we must make our voices heard to protect and advocate for our children. Please join us during this #YJAM to do just that.

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/09/30/a-proclamation-on-national-youth-justice-action-month-2021/

[2] https://www.tfaforms.com/4926781

[3] https://www.juvjustice.org/blog/1339

October is for Youth Justice Awareness Month

October is Youth Justice Awareness Month. With that in mind, the entries for this month will focus primarily on issues related to the juvenile justice system. The following post offers a brief discussion on the right to counsel in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

In 1967, the Supreme Court recognized juveniles’ right to Due Process under the 14th Amendment in the landmark case In re Gault. This decision granted juvenile defendants many of the same due process rights afforded to adults, including the right to formal notification of the charges against them, the right against self-incrimination, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel. While this was a huge victory for children and child’s rights advocates, the reality of the situation is decidedly less triumphant.

In most cases, the right to counsel “kicks in” just prior to the child’s initial detention hearing; at this point, the child and their parents are notified of their right to counsel and the child is appointed an attorney if the child is determined indigent. However, this is not the child’s first point of contact with the juvenile justice system—that would be when the child is first taken into custody. This is a critical point for the child, as things can potentially go very wrong if they do not have access to counsel at this early stage. Research has shown that children are far more susceptible to coercion than adults, so it is likely that a child may offer incriminating evidence upon being questioned, irrespective of their guilt or innocence. Furthermore, children typically lack a thorough (or in many cases, even cursory) understanding of how the justice system works, so it is imperative they have an advisor at every stage of the process to ensure their rights are protected.

To illustrate this point, one need only look to Fare v. Michael C. (1979), where the Supreme Court established that a juvenile’s right to counsel must be explicitly invoked. In this case, the child’s request to see their probation officer (a trusted adult) was deemed insufficient to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and therefore the child’s statements made during police interrogation were all admissible in court. But how can we expect children to know precisely whom to ask for help, and when? How are children supposed to know the right things to say, or not to say, when most adults in similar positions are equally unaware? The justice system is complex and the children who find themselves within it are often under a great deal of stress—not only from the experience itself, but also from outside influences such as their parents, police, prosecutors, and even judges. 

Furthermore, the notion that a child can waive their constitutional rights—in particular the right to counsel—is ludicrous, and such waivers should be per se unallowable. The decision giving juveniles the right to counsel in Gault was predicated on due process considerations, rather than the right to counsel guaranteed by the 6th Amendment. While an adult’s right to waive counsel in criminal proceedings arises out of the 6th Amendment, due process under the 14th Amendment does not necessitate the same result for juveniles. In fact, given the developmental differences between children and adults, it would be clearly out of line with due process considerations to allow juveniles to waive their right to counsel. The chances of obtaining a “voluntary,” “knowing” and “intelligent” waiver (as is required by law) from a child are severely diminished in consideration of the various stressors the child faces while in contact with the system. This, combined with the fact of the still-developing adolescent brain and compounded by the vital role of counsel in juvenile proceedings, make waiver of the right to representation totally inappropriate in these cases.

 If a child under these circumstances can waive their right to counsel, how can any of their other constitutional rights be guaranteed? Without an inalienable right to representation in delinquency proceedings, the due process considerations extended to juveniles in Gault are effectively meaningless. Therefore, the right to counsel should activate automatically and inviolably at the earliest stage possible to ensure that a child’s rights are protected throughout the entire juvenile justice process.

For a more thorough discussion on this topic, see:

Gary G. Strieker, Waiver of Constitutional Rights by Minors: A Question of Law or Fact, 19 Hastings L.J. 223 (1967). Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_law_journal/vol19/iss1/9

Ellen Marrus, Gault, 40 Years Later: Are We There Yet?, 44 Criminal Law Bulletin 413 (2008), U of Houston Law Center No. 2014-A-51. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2450171

Harris County Street Law Mock Trial Competition

The best time of the Street Law Course is the mock trial competition, typically held at the end of the academic year. During this time the students compete to win as the best mock trial team of the year. The teams the students are in are based on the location they are taking the street law course at, which can vary from community programs to their actual high school. All the students competing are high-school aged.

During the academic year, the students in street law are being taught by 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th year (part-time) law students that attend the University of Houston Law Center. Typically, the students have the street law course two or more times a week. Many of the students in the street law course can take it for high school credit. Throughout the first semester of street law, as street law is a year-long academic course, the students are learning foundational understandings of civil and criminal law. The mock trial problem that the students get is going to be either civil or criminal, but it is unknown until closer to or during the second semester

The curriculum the instructors are teaching the students helps understand which students will be better for which roles during the mock trial competition. For example, if there is a speaking activity that the students need to do. The ones that like to lead the group will more than likely be the lead attorney for the mock trial competition. Another example, if there is an activity that involved bringing out one’s personability and one of the students does that exceptionally well. Then that student will more than likely be considered to hold a witness role, as witnesses need to have unique personalities.

Once the mock trial packet is received, the excitement begins. The next step is to read the entire mock trial packet to get an understanding of the laws being used, facts, jury verdicts, and evidence. During this time students are starting to use their critical thinking skills to analyze how the rules of the law might apply to the facts. All these skills are typically derived from the knowledge the students have gained over the year in the street law course. There are usually two to three witnesses for each side of the case that gave a sworn deposition in the packet. The students understand these witnesses and what their motives, credibility, and intent are in the case. Each one of the witnesses is played by one of the students in the mock trial so it is important to fully understand what the role of the witness is in the case. Additionally, in the case packet are the laws that will be applied in the case, which the students break down and use persuasively towards the facts given for their respective party in the case. The students are also given the jury form to help understand what it is the jury will be measuring to make their final verdict based on how well the case and chief, opening, and closings were presented. Being thorough and effective when presenting the case is of the utmost importance for the students to win.

Next are the attorneys. There can be two or more attorneys for each side. The students must prepare an opening statement, direct and cross-examinations for all witnesses, and a closing argument. Typically, each one of these sections is done by two or more student attorneys. The student attorneys also get a chance to learn courtroom evidentiary proceedings. This allows the student attorneys to have an opportunity to keep out certain types of evidence that might hurt their case. Once at trial, the students dress professionally and put on their case versus the other respective street law locations in Harris County. This is when the countless hours spent prepping for the mock trial, practicing with all witnesses, preparing opening and closings are put on a show. In the mock trial tournament, there are brackets, kind of like March Madness, except it is not single elimination. The brackets are random, and teams are scored by real attorneys and judges who practice in the field. The scores the students receive throughout the first two to three rounds determine which teams will go to the semifinals. It is as simple as the four teams with the highest scored through those first two to three rounds move on. Usually, there are about 12-16 teams in the tournament, so it can get quite competitive. Once the semifinals are concluded the two teams who won that round versus the team, they went against will move on to the finals. The two teams in finals compete for first place and whoever wins is the Harris County Street Law Champion of that academic year. There are awards and trophies/medals awarded for the team that won and individual awards as well for top performances.

The tournament pre-Covid was always held in person and took up an entire day. Post-Covid it has been virtual taking place over two days. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to do it in person back, as it brings everyone together. This is a great time for everyone involved and I believe having this tournament for the street law students gives them a real opportunity to see the value of understanding the law and possibly wanting to have a career in the legal field.