Juvenile defense ‘undervalued’

Published: 8/24/2020 8:11:07 PM

Modified: 8/24/2020 8:11:04 PM

CONCORD — A national nonprofit says legal representation for young people in New Hampshire is “gravely undervalued,” leading to inadequate access to attorneys and unnecessary rates of probation and court involvement.

The National Juvenile Defender Center released its report last week after spending a year examining how the state handles juvenile delinquency cases.

The group praised New Hampshire for dramatically decreasing the number of young people in detention centers and passing legislation that reduces fines and fees for families involved in the juvenile justice system.

But it found that despite having a constitutional right to an attorney, many young people in the state are showing up to court never having met their public defender, and some are waiving their right to counsel entirely.

The NJDC focused much of its assessment on the role of the New Hampshire Public Defender, which contracts with the state to provide counsel to indigent clients, including juveniles.

About 3,000 young people are involved in the state’s juvenile justice system per year, but New Hampshire has no specialized juvenile defense unit, making it an outlier in New England.

Instead, NJDC says, juvenile court is treated as a “training ground” for younger public defenders with already high adult caseloads.

The NJDC found that the state’s system of weighting cases perpetuates this culture, by paying public defenders and contract attorneys significantly less for juvenile cases — in some cases, just one-eighth of what they would get for an adult case.

Anna Elbroch, who worked as an attorney with the New Hampshire Public Defender before joining UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, praised the Public Defender for “providing training and mentoring that is unparalleled to other programs.”

But, she said, the limited time allowed for juvenile cases often meant lawyers couldn’t attend education and treatment team meetings for their clients, conduct investigations or advocate for services outside of the court system.

Moira O’Neill, director of the N.H. Office of the Child Advocate, said this isn’t lost on young people.

“Children are astutely aware of the pressures under which people are attempting to serve them,” O’Neill wrote in a press release. “They receive that ‘undervalued’ message. That has a profound effect on their resiliency, which is really the whole point of a separate juvenile justice system.”

The NJDC found that “children, particularly those charged with misdemeanors, commonly came to court without counsel.” Some of them waived their right to counsel and pled true at arraignments without ever having spoken to a lawyer or been informed of their constitutional rights.

“Young people who plead true are often then assigned a number of probation conditions which can be really hard to manage and adhere to,” says NJDC director Mary Ann Scali. “(This) leads to young people being caught up in the court system for years at a time.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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