Do You Need a Lawyer for Juvenile Court?

Attorneys can really help minors who are in trouble with the law.

By , UCLA Law School Professor

It's almost always helpful for minors to have lawyers in their juvenile cases. The attorney should normally be one who specializes in or is at least familiar with juvenile court procedures. Research indicates that effective assistance of counsel can greatly affect a case's outcome. For example, attorneys often can help by:

  • getting cases diverted, or handled informally, so the juvenile isn't incarcerated and has no juvenile court record
  • arranging for a juvenile's release from pre-adjudication detention
  • keeping juveniles from being tried as adults, and
  • putting together, and convincing a judge to agree to, a creative and compassionate disposition.

(For a more complete picture of the juvenile justice system, see Juvenile Court: An Overview.)

Nevertheless, some juvenile court professionals say that a lawyer's involvement often prolongs cases, turning what a prosecutor might be willing to handle informally into a formal adversarial proceeding. Some probation officers, intake personnel, judges, and other juvenile court staff admit that they are hostile to defense attorneys because they think the attorneys slow down already overcrowded calendars. Some judges threaten to (and some actually do) give harsher treatment to juveniles represented by lawyers.

On the one hand, an "A" student with no prior record who is accused of putting graffiti on a school wall may receive advice that a quick, informal, and satisfactory disposition is more likely if no lawyer is involved. On the other, minors are generally entitled to representation, even if they can't afford it (see Do juveniles have a right to counsel?); in fact, depending on the state and situation, the minor may even be required to have a lawyer. Some advocates believe that minors go without counsel far too often.

Because the variables are so great, there are no meaningful guidelines regarding when a lawyer should be used. However, juvenile court regulars, such as a deputy public defender assigned to the court, may have an informed opinion on whether the minor is likely to benefit from legal representation. Also, the more serious the crime and the worse the minor's record, the more important it is to have legal representation.

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