Juvenile Justice Priorities: Improving Access to Legal Services, Improving JJ Outcomes

Attorney General Eric Holder  Spoke at the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. ~ Monday, March 7, 2011

He noted that the Association of Counties, and the Department of Justice have common goals, of doing more and more to serve our citizens while resources diminish. He identified two specific priorities for the Justice Department:

“how we can improve the effectiveness of our juvenile justice system, and how we’re going to ensure that every American can access the legal services they need and deserve.”

He noted that “one of the most important lessons I learned as a federal prosecutor, as a judge, as a United States Attorney, as Deputy Attorney General, as Attorney General – and, above all, as a father of three children: that the work of protecting, assisting, and empowering our young people could not be more urgent.   “

He noted that:

  • The nation’s juvenile justice system is in need of change, that it doesn’t spend resources as wisely as it should, and does not improve as many lives as it could.
  • Although African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, they make up more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime.
  • Abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior.
  • That so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance.
  • Some youth even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • A scientific review of nine “Scared Straight” programs around the country showed that children ordered into these programs are nearly 30 percent more likely to offend than youths who are not.
  • In another study, 12 percent of the adjudicated youth in state-operated and large locally or privately operated juvenile facilities reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual victimization while incarcerated.

“A recent Utah Youth Suicide Study reported that young victims of suicide had nearly a seven in ten chance of an association with the juvenile justice system, calling us to question whether the current system is improving lives – or devastating them.”


  • Each year, 100,000 young people exit formal custody.   And some of them have nowhere to go.   Too many of these young people return to unstable homes – or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous, or violent, situations.   And many are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Within a year of reentry, one study found that only 30 percent of previously incarcerated youth are involved in either school or work.   The unfortunate fact is that many end up in our jails and prisons.

Robert Kennedy believed that the link between justice and children could never be broken without compromising our founding ideals – and our most sacred principles.   He was right.

Mr. Holder noted that justice in the juvenile system is a moral issue that makes good fiscal sense:

  • “How we treat our children answers the question of who we are as a nation.”
  • “Better serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”

Mr. Holder advised that we

  • Broaden our approach to juvenile justice and ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process”.
  • Transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.  Adopt  a comprehensive plan of action that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, and community leaders.

Mr. Holder talked about the success of the Safe Start Program, and  the launch of the Defending Childhood Initiative – the federal government’s most comprehensive effort ever to address and overcome the crisis of childhood exposure to violence, that President Obama pledged $25 million to this initiative in his budget proposal.

Mr. Holder talked about alternatives to juvenile justice involvement for youths involved in minor offenses.

  • He mentioned specifically, the Civil Citations program in Miami-Dade County where youth who commit minor misdemeanors are  referred to targeted interventions aimed at reducing delinquent behavior and providing positive social outlets instead of arresting them and placing them in the juvenile justice system.  This program has reduced recidivism to 3 percent  and arrests by 30 percent for youth that participate in the program.

In addition to his emphasis on intervention and prevention over punishment, Mr. Holder also addressed the failure of our justice system to provide juveniles (as well as adults) with access to legal services.

According to The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Survey of Youth in Residential Placement :

  • Only one half of young people in detention facilities have a lawyer.
  • In many jurisdictions, youth are encouraged – whether explicitly or implicitly – to waive their right to counsel.
  • When juveniles assert their right to have a lawyer, court-appointed lawyers often enter the picture too late.
  • Across the country, too many public defender officers are underfunded and understaffed

Mr. Holder discussed his Department’s new Access to Justice Initiative:

  • An office established in an effort to ensure that quality legal representation is available, affordable, and accessible to all Americans.
  • Includes an agenda to help counties face the “impossible choice between funding critical health and human services or upholding core Constitutional rights.”

The  Office of Justice Programs is also working to implement solutions for indigent defense and juvenile justice reform by:

  • Establishing the Indigent Defense Hiring Project
  • Working with the National Juvenile Defender Center to establish a National Fellowship Program for law school graduates to become public defenders for three years.