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Surely no one in the state of Missouri, and likely beyond, has missed the media coverage surrounding the Michael Brown shooting about a year ago. Opinions have been mixed in the news media about the details of his death, some based on fact, some based on emotion. But a recent report released by the United States Department of Justice sheds some light on the treatment of young offenders in the Family Court in St. Louis County that likely permeates the criminal justice system in many counties across the country.

Although the investigation that led to the report started nine months before Michael Brown died, the findings support the image of a juvenile justice system that discriminates not just against black youth, but all low-income juveniles. One problem, according to the report, is that, in a county of one million people, only one public defender is assigned to juvenile cases. There were 394 of those in 2014. 

The DOJ report reached the conclusion that the inadequate representation of children in St. Louis County courts violates their constitutional rights. In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants who cannot afford legal representation must be provided legal counsel by the state. In 1967, this right was extended to juvenile defendants. Due to the inadequate staffing for these cases in St. Louis County, the juveniles’ right to counsel and right against self-incrimination are not being protected.

One way in which these rights are being violated is the process used by county courts. The juvenile system is essentially divided into formal and informal proceedings. Most of the cases are handled through the informal process where offenders are either given warnings or ordered into diversion programs. But in order to avoid the consequences of the formal process which can include jail time, the juvenile must admit to the charges. The DOJ says that this violates the right against self-incrimination (i.e., admitting to the crime).

This brief overview of the DOJ report makes apparent the importance of having representation in any juvenile proceeding. A conviction in the juvenile system can often be the precursor to a life spent in the criminal justice system. Whether a juvenile has been charged with underage drinking and driving or another offense, a free consultation with legal counsel can make a difference in the future.

Source: New York Times, “St. Louis County Biased Against Black Juveniles, Justice Department Finds,” Richard Pérez-Peña, July 31, 2015

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