Justice Dept. Files “Statement of Interest” in Case of “Assembly-Line Justice” for Juveniles in 4 Georgia Counties

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
(AP photo)

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has provided input into a Georgia legal case in which four counties in Georgia have been accused of denying legal representation to juveniles by underfunding legal defense services.

 

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit (pdf), filed in January 2014 by adult defendants and juveniles accused of delinquency in the Cordele Judicial Circuit, claims the public defense system for Crisp, Dooly, Wilcox, and Ben Hill counties has too few lawyers and too little funding to properly assist juveniles and indigent adults accused of breaking the law.

 

The Justice Department injected itself into the case by filing a “Statement of Interest” (pdf) that contributes guidelines to the case, and which pertains only to matters of justice for juvenile defendants, not adults. In doing so, the DOJ made a point of saying it was not weighing in on the litigation itself. “Without taking a position on the merits of the case, the United States files this Statement of Interest to provide the Court with a framework for evaluating Plaintiffs’ juvenile justice claims and to assist the Court in determining the types of safeguards that must be in place to ensure that children receive the due process the Constitution demands,” the Statement said.

 

“For too long, the Supreme Court’s promise of fairness for young people accused of delinquency has gone unfulfilled in courts across our country,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press release regarding the DOJ case filing.  “Every child has the right to a competent attorney who will provide the highest level of professional guidance and advocacy.  It is time for courts to adequately fund indigent defense systems for children and meet their constitutional responsibilities.”

 

The Cordele Judicial Circuit, according to the class action lawsuit, has at times provided only “assembly-line justice” to juveniles being processed through the courts.

 

As part of the framework provided in its statement, the DOJ points out that “children are denied their right to counsel not only when an attorney is entirely absent, but also when an attorney is available in name only.” It adds that, “if a child decides to waive the right to an attorney, courts must ensure that the waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary by requiring consultation with counsel before the court accepts the waiver.”

 

The goal of the plaintiffs is to reform the systemic failure of public defense in the Cordele Circuit to prevent future due process violations, according to the DOJ press release.

- Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff

 

To Learn More:

Department of Justice Statement of Interest Supports Meaningful Right to Counsel in Juvenile Prosecutions (U.S. Department of Justice)

Statement of Interest of the United States, re: N.P. et al v. State of Georgia (Georgia Superior Court, Fulton County) (pdf)

N.P. et al v. State of Georgia, et al (Georgia Superior Court, Fulton County) (pdf)

Juvenile Offenders often Receive less Justice than Adults (by Steve Straehley and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

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