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Gault at 56, National Concerns About Youth Defense, and the North Carolina Response

Updated: Jul 25, 2023



In a recent blog post, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Administrator Liz Ryan gave a brief history of juvenile indigent defense in light of the 56th Anniversary of In re Gault. She provides an overview of the Gault decision and then points out that, while juvenile indigent defense has improved, there are still barriers to juvenile representation. Two of the barriers she describes are early access to counsel/automatic appointment, and a lack of specialization for youth defenders. In reading the blog I felt like North Carolina has addressed or at least attempted to address these concerns.


In regards to access to counsel, NCGS 7B-2000 provides that “[a] juvenile alleged to be within the jurisdiction of the court has the right to be represented by counsel in all proceedings.” Once a youth has a petition filed in juvenile court, counsel is automatically appointed – and not at the first court appearance. Note that on the summons form (AOC-J-340) the name, address and telephone number of the attorney is provided so that the youth and parent/guardian can set up a meeting prior to the first hearing.


Also, North Carolina has made efforts to strengthen the quality of juvenile counsel, both in small “s” and large “S” specialization. All jurisdictions are mandated by statute to comply with standards for counsel promulgated by the Indigent Defense Services Commission (IDS). The Office of the Juvenile Defender (OJD) helped draft the Uniform Indigent Appointment Plan, which creates two separate lists and qualifications for youth defenders, including years of experience, training, and exposure and familiar with key stakeholders and entities that engage youth in the system.


Additionally, OJD was instrumental in the development of the Juvenile Delinquency Specialization sanctioned by the North Carolina State Bar. As a sub-specialty of Criminal Defense, the State Bar requires a rigorous process for specialization, including educational requirements, peer review and passing two exams, one in general criminal practice and the other in juvenile delinquency.


Despite this progress, North Carolina could still make improvements in both right to counsel and qualifications. For example, the scope of counsel is limited to “all juvenile proceedings.” What if a youth in custody, prior to their first court hearing, is being interrogated and needs to speak to an attorney? Youth also need assistance navigating placement, custody and release after disposition is entered, but North Carolina currently does not provide counsel for those instances. Additionally, while standards have been created, oversight to confirm compliance with those standards varies and could be improved with more resources.


Since the Gault decision, North Carolina has made notable steps in improving the representation of youth, but there is always room for continued growth to provide the most complete, competent counsel for our youth clients.

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