COLUMBUS, OH - As the Supreme Court of Ohio today heard arguments on protecting children’s right to counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Ohio, the Children’s Law Center and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender announced a statewide campaign to inform young people of their rights.
Based on analysis of juvenile court cases, the groups estimate that in several Ohio counties as many as 90 percent of children charged with criminal wrongdoing are not represented by counsel. Statewide, an estimated two-thirds of juveniles facing unruly or delinquency complaints proceed without an attorney.
“Children in Ohio are waiving their right to a lawyer at unusually high rates compared to the rest of the country, depriving themselves of the well-known benefits of having counsel to advocate for them,” said Emily Chiang, a staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Educating children about the right to a lawyer at juvenile court proceedings can only be a good thing, so that the decisions they make can be as informed as possible.”
As part of the campaign, the groups are distributing thousands of Know Your Rights cards to school districts and courts across the state. The cards are also available for download in English or Spanish at www.aclu.org/lawyersforchildren.
The statewide campaign was launched today as the Supreme Court of Ohio heard arguments in In Re: Corey Spears, a Minor Child, which concerns the circumstances under which a juvenile defendant should be allowed to waive his or her right to counsel. Current Ohio law states that “(c)ounsel must be provided for a child not represented by the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian.” But the groups argue that this law is vague and leads courts to falsely conclude that a parent or guardian is as competent as an attorney to give legal advice or to act as a qualified representative of a juvenile defendant in courtroom proceedings.
Corey Spears was 13 years old when he appeared in Licking County Juvenile Court on August 9, 2005 on charges of grand theft and a probation violation. Spears waived his right to an attorney but the court failed to ensure that he understood what rights he was giving up. He may now spend up to seven years incarcerated without having had the benefit of counsel, and without having been afforded adequate due process of law.
“Kids like Corey routinely give up their right to counsel without receiving adequate explanation of what it means to proceed without an attorney,” said Amanda Powell, Assistant State Public Defender, who argued on behalf of Spears today. “By giving up this right, children in Ohio are exposed to serious consequences that will follow them long into their future.”
Many youth also have barriers to understanding the serious charges they face. In Ohio, almost 75 percent of incarcerated youth need mental health services, and nearly half need special educational services, according to studies by mental health and education groups. A growing number of cases show that youth who are not represented by an attorney are more likely to enter guilty pleas, even when they may be innocent or have viable defenses, said the groups.
“All too often, children in Ohio are left to fend for themselves in the face of daunting legal proceedings,” said Jeffrey Gamso, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio. “Children without lawyers act hastily under the mistaken belief that their cases will be resolved quickly. This harms not only the juvenile defendants but society as a whole.”
The Ohio campaign comes in advance of the 40th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court ruling, In Re Gault. On May 15, 1967, the Court declared that all children accused of delinquent acts have the right to counsel in the proceedings against them. The Gault case, which was filed by the ACLU, stated for the first time that young persons are entitled to criminal procedural protections.
Since Gault, many state legislatures and state courts have provided greater protection to safeguard the right to counsel for minors. A majority of states make it difficult, if not impossible, for juveniles to waive their right to an attorney in delinquency proceedings, and provide clear standards regarding the waiver of counsel. Some states expressly prohibit juveniles from waiving their right to counsel under any circumstances. Nine states have implemented statutes that prohibit a child from waiving counsel based on certain age requirements, and 15 states protect a child’s right to counsel by mandating specific guidelines such as permitting a child to waive his or her rights only after consultation with an attorney.
“The Ohio juvenile defense system needs to be reformed to ensure that the rights of children are protected,” said Kim Brooks Tandy, Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center. “Justice cannot be administered fairly when children who come from poor families or who have learning disabilities are not given the chance to talk to a lawyer.”