Vision For Juvenile Defense

Children are the single-most valuable resource of a society. Juveniles represent the most vulnerable portion of our clients in the public defender system, yet we have neglected to provide the resources and support to ensure that their rights are protected and their best interests are served. The Louisiana Public Defender Board seeks to change this by reforming the juvenile justice system, and in so doing to present opportunities for society to address the underlying issues of education, poverty, and crime.

Because children have significantly different needs and psychologies than adults, the law applied to children differs significantly from the law applied to adults. Juvenile defense is an altogether different practice of law - it requires knowledge of child development and competency; effective interaction with parents, teachers, and other important people in the child's life; and strong relationships with local resources, services and alternatives to detention.

Unfortunately, very few Louisiana attorneys specialize in juvenile defense and only four districts have statutorily created juvenile courts. Louisiana's public defense system - for the first time since juveniles won the right to counsel in 1967 - now provides staff and resources to support the unique needs of its juvenile clients.

The vast majority of children who enter the juvenile justice system have learning disabilities, mental illness, or emotional/behavioral disabilities. The juvenile public defender program must be responsive to the needs of these clients in order to break the cycle of incarceration. Research unequivocally proves that the best way to keep a child from being court-involved later in life is to ensure that the only children who enter detention are the ones who absolutely need to be there. It is in the best interest of all society that any child who comes into contact with the juvenile justice system must have access to appropriate services and support.

Each year in Louisiana, more than 14,000 students drop out of school. Thirteen percent of 16- to 19-year-olds in Louisiana are not in school or working - the second highest percentage in the nation. Twenty-six percent of Louisiana's children live in poverty - again, the second highest percentage in the nation. In 2005, Louisiana ranked 50th in the nation in per capita income. In an assessment of overall child-health, Louisiana ranked 49th in the nation.

There is no better way to ensure that at-risk children become happy, healthy, productive adults than to equip juvenile defenders with the resources to zealously advocate to find enduring solutions to the crisis that brought their young clients into the criminal justice system. That is the commitment of the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

To improve our juvenile advocacy, we are developing and/or enhancing policies affecting juveniles in the justice system. Statewide, we are providing the highest quality specialized training for juvenile defenders and are developing formal standards for delinquency, FINS and CINC representation. We are supporting the development of juvenile law courses and clinics throughout the state, and have created a juvenile defender internship program to recruit young lawyers to become committed, career juvenile defenders. The Louisiana Public Defender Board also supports the MacArthur Foundation Models for Change sites and the Anne E. Casey Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative sites, and maximizes their impact through the development of statewide public defender protocols. Though the juvenile listserv, field visits and consistent support from the state agency, the Louisiana Public Defender Board is building a supportive community of juvenile defenders who are uniquely qualified to deliver juvenile defender services.

No single entity can accomplish these enormous and critical initiatives alone. In cooperation with all state agencies serving children, the Louisiana Public Defender Board seeks to identify and create realistic alternatives to the current juvenile justice system when dealing with children in poverty and facing a lack of education. Together, all state agencies serving children must develop and implement a variety of programs, ranging from assistance for children with behavior problems in school to programs designed to curb the sharply rising dropout rate, so that children can avoid the justice system entirely.

Through policies, training and defender support, the Louisiana Public Defender Board will be a critical asset to advance Louisiana's reputation as a national leader in juvenile justice reform.

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