The American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Law Center, the ACLU of Ohio, and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender today filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Ohio, calling for the Court to better protect the right to counsel for children accused of a crime.

As many as 80 percent of children charged with criminal wrongdoing in some Ohio juvenile courts are not represented by counsel. Statewide, an estimated two-thirds of juveniles facing delinquency or unruly complaints in 2004 proceeded without an attorney.

“Too many young people simply do not understand the legal ramifications of proceeding without an attorney,” said ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Jeffrey Gamso. “At a minimum, we should ensure that children meet with an attorney to discuss their legal options before they’re allowed to continue unrepresented.”

Currently, Ohio law allows juveniles to waive their right to legal counsel with only the permission of the court. The petition filed today asks the Supreme Court to require every child to first consult with an attorney before being allowed to waive the right to counsel.

“Not requiring juveniles to seek legal counsel hurts children, impedes the fair administration of justice and proves costly to society,” said ACLU National staff attorney Vincent Warren. “If a child is in a correctional facility for 10 months, taxpayers spend almost $50,000. We should spend that money teaching children, not warehousing them.”

Many Ohio youth also have barriers to understanding the serious charges they may face. In Ohio, almost 75% of incarcerated youth need mental health services, and nearly half need special educational services. 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.

“Kids aren’t waiving their right to counsel for well-thought-out reasons,” said Kim Brooks Tandy, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “They are waiving to get the process over with quickly, because they think they will seem less guilty, or because their parents unwittingly encourage them to do so.”

A recent report from the Children’s Law Center found that roughly 15% of children committed to Ohio Department of Youth Services facilities and 20% of those placed at community corrections facilities were unrepresented by counsel during their delinquency proceedings.

"For more than seven years, I’ve represented kids incarcerated in the Department of Youth Services, and I am still surprised when I interview a youth and find that this is the first time he has seen an attorney," said Jill Beeler, juvenile section supervisor, Office of the Ohio Public Defender. “It is in the best interest of all parties for a child to be fully informed of his or her rights. Ohio’s kids deserve the fairest possible judicial proceedings and stronger protections of their rights.”