As I begin my journey in the Office of the Juvenile Defender, I’m starting to learn more about issues within the legal system currently affecting our community. One of the terms I became aware of is “legal desert” and although it is self-explanatory, it’s interesting to understand the underlying problem and how OJD is working towards the creation and implementation of initiatives that promote juvenile law advocacy and trainings for defenders in the state.
The justice system ensures access to legal representation as a mission to sustain a fair and composed society. Unfortunately, in many parts of the United States, including North Carolina, there are areas known as "legal deserts" where citizens, particularly youth, face significant challenges in accessing quality legal representation, resources, and even placement within the system. In this blog, we will briefly discuss legal deserts and how OJD is making strides to combat this crisis by supporting juvenile defenders in their rocky road journey of practicing juvenile law.
According to NC Indigent Defense Services, a "Legal desert" refers to an area where there is less than 1 lawyer per 1,000 residents, making it extremely difficult for residents to access legal services, guidance, and representation. As of this year, 48 NC counties out of a 100, qualify as a legal desert. As mentioned, our youth community is subject to be disproportionately affected, leading to unfavorable outcomes and even recidivism. That’s why youth facing legal issues require specialized representation that considers their unique needs, including upbringing circumstances, parent/guardian involvement, and psychological and behavioral development.
OJD recognizes the urgency of having more juvenile defenders in North Carolina, especially now after the Raise the Age legislation has been passed. Although OJD is currently going through some adjustments, we are working in providing organized and accessible information to defenders and individuals interested in advocating for children’s rights by:
1. Providing services and support: From CLE Credit trainings to important resources for defenders, youth, their families, and law students.
2. Evaluating current system of representation: OJD has worked collaboratively with NC Indigent Defense Services by observing juvenile court and identifying barriers and improvement opportunities. This approach helps identify areas of need and promote the creation of initiatives such as:
3. Elevating the stature of juvenile delinquency representation: To bridge the gap between law practice and juvenile defense, OJD collaborates with law schools such as the UNC School of Law and NC organizations to raise awareness about the need of juvenile defenders. The office has also worked to ensure law student have proper guidance by hosting internship and externships opportunities in the past. For more information on this, don’t forget to subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to be the first one to know about future opportunities.
4. Working with juvenile justice advocates to promote positive change in the juvenile justice system: OJD seeks to address systemic issues that contribute to the existence of legal deserts, deficient juvenile law representation, and juvenile delinquency increase by collaborating with advocacy groups such as NC Bar Association, NC Child, ACLU, among others.
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