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.

John Ligon – From Being Down To Persevering, When Others Don’t See It But You

In the wake of justice, John Ligon had finally received what he believed would happen – a release from prison without parole. Why would someone wait 68 years for this?

John Ligon was the son of sharecroppers from the state of Alabama. John dropped out of school before he was middle school aged. John’s family relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when he was 13 years old. At this time his family wanted him to go back to school. John was new in town and lacked the education most teenagers had at the time. In 1953, when John turned 15-years old, he was charged in Pennsylvania for being part of a group of teenagers involved in a spree of robbery and assaults that led to the murder of two individuals. John admits to being part of this teenage group that did those crimes. Yet, John denies ever killing anyone. John states that the murders had the front pages of newspapers claiming the group he was in had been called “The Head Hunters,” but he denies that group ever being a gang. These convictions led to a life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During this period the United States was a world leader for imprisoning juveniles without the ability to get parole. Until 2016, the state of Pennsylvania had the most juveniles serving life sentences. Around sixty percent of this prison population had been from Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest big cities, and a high percentage of them were Black. The cost to lock up John for so long was $3 million, excluding the cancer treatments he received. John is currently in the remission phase. He is an example of the high expense to incarcerate elderly prisoners due to their demand for health needs; despite them likely being less of a danger to society.

Interestingly enough, John mentions he is a stubborn person, stating “I was born that way.” Yet, he wanted the freedom to be able to go anywhere he wanted without having to check in with no one. This is important as John did get an opportunity to get released on parole after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life terms for minors who were convicted of murder in 2012. Yet, John wanted a life without a parole officer, stating “with parole you got to see people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.” Even at that time, many prisoners wanted John to not think that way and told him that this is his opportunity to be out in the free world. Even a former juvenile lifer, John Pace, who is now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project counseled John and told him, “if you want to fight, fight when you get out.” John knew how he wanted to live life once he was able to get freedom— that was not it.

John had a dedicated lawyer to help him with the ability to live that life of freedom he desired. Bradley Bridge, a public defender, was John’s lawyer of 15 years. He had a mission to release John on the terms John sought. This took gathering as much information about John’s background as possible, locating all school transcripts and prison records that spanned over the entire time John was incarcerated. Bridge argued that John’s sentencing was part of cruel and unusual punishment, specifically stating that “… if this went to trial today, Joe Ligon would be found guilty of robbery, aggravated assault, or attempted murder, and he would have gotten a sentence of five to 10 years.” During this time, in 2016, John was then eligible for parole but opted out to spend four more years in prison. Even at that time, the judge explained to John “I do not want you to die in prison.” Yet, John wanted to do whatever it took to be free from any type of sentencing tied to the convictions he received as a 15-year-old.

After the four additional years spent in prison, John eventually got what he wanted and was released from prison. John had 10 plus city organizations in Philadelphia assisting him in getting John a foster-care-like accommodation with a family who opened their home to him after his release. Additionally, John was able to get the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services to work on compensating John’s living expenses he would be able to receive that first year. Moreover, John was given a benefits specialist to work on John being able to receive Social Security after that year ends. The support John received was tremendous and assisted in his ability to live the life he knew he would be able to after his release.

The reason John waited those extra years to be released from prison was to show that the fight to live a life you wanted is attainable. The daring obstacles John mostly put on himself was his choice. He knew he could get released with parole earlier than his actual release date, but that is not what he wanted. Even when public opinion and others close to John told him a viable way out if it was not what he wished for he kept surviving and advocating for what he believed in. John even mentions “we’ve been to hell and back,” so why not get what you wish for. John is a true story of perseverance.