The Justice Department for the first time is weighing in on a state court case on whether some courts are depriving juveniles of their rights to a lawyer.
The department filed a statement of interest in a Georgia case that alleges that public defense in four southern counties is so underfunded that low-income juveniles are routinely denied the right to legal representation.
Civil rights attorneys say that in Georgia, most young people get "assembly-line justice" that can haunt them the rest of their lives.
The court case accuses the counties of failing to meet their constitutional obligations to provide effective representation. The lawyers provided to young people in these juvenile courts may meet them just 15 minutes before a proceeding, and sometimes spend much of that time convincing them to admit guilt.
"There are too many places in this country where both kids and adults are facing jail time without any adequate constitutional protections and right to counsel, " says Vanita Gupta, acting chief of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department.
She says the department's court filing sets out the way the system ought to work — not just in Georgia but all over the country.
"It is more than just having a lawyer by your side, " she says. "It has to mean that the lawyer has the resources to investigate a case, to be able to file motions, to make sure that they are meeting a client in advance to figure out, is there a defense? Is there investigation that needs to be done?"
The group's president, Stephen Bright, says that those four Georgia counties handled about 600 juvenile cases last year, but that public defenders — already swamped with nearly 1, 700 adult cases — provided representation to just a tiny fraction of those children.
The counties contracted with a private lawyer to work 30 hours per week on juvenile proceedings for a flat fee, allowing him scant time to meet with young clients and evaluate their cases, Bright says.
"The children who come before the court are overwhelmingly African-American, " Bright adds. "Many of them come after being arrested for what is typical teenage behavior at school."
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