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Report: Juveniles Lack Legal Advice; Often Urged To Plead Guilty


Everybody knows when you are accused of a crime, you get a lawyer. But in practice, that is not the case for thousands of kids. The Justice Department says about half the young people locked up in detention facilities never had an attorney. And now, a new report finds that even when juveniles do get legal advice, it often comes from lawyers who urge them to plead guilty. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The young woman from Baltimore sitting across the table and sipping a cup of tea entered the justice system when she was just eight years old. Home was no longer a safe place because, she says, she was being raped by someone close to her. NPR'S not using her name because she's the victim of abuse. The state removed her from her home and put her into a facility, where she says another juvenile beat her with a lock.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, I didn't understand my rights. I ended up in a juvenile system from one of my placements. I was getting bullied. And when I finally lashed out, that's when I got charged.

JOHNSON: The court appointed her a lawyer, but she says she had no idea what was happening or why. That lawyer didn't ask any questions or do much explaining. The young woman spent the next seven years in detention facilities with kids who had mental illness and kids who were very violent. She responded with more violence and got charged again, but it wasn't until a different lawyer noticed her in a visiting room that her life began to change for the better.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She was the only person. And I was in the system since 8, and it took me to the age of 15 to have somebody come into my life and actually care - literally care about the child's well-being.

JOHNSON: The new lawyer listened. She found her a home outside a detention center, and that made all the difference.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Kids need love, too. Kids - you know, you never know what they're going through. And everybody needs love, especially children and teenagers.

JOHNSON: Mary Ann Scali galley leads the National Juvenile Defenders Center. It's a nonprofit group that helps promote strong legal defenses for children accused of crimes.

MARY ANN SCALI: Around the country, we still see children in courts every day who do not have a lawyer.

JOHNSON: Scali says, once juveniles enter detention centers, that experience can follow them for the rest of their lives.

SCALI: Many children then can't get back into school. Later on, they can't get jobs. Their families may even face eviction from housing because they have a child who's been adjudicated of a felony in their home. And the families and children don't understand the consequences.

JOHNSON: Nearly 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles accused of crimes have the right to a lawyer. But in practice, Scali's report finds that young people who do get attorneys often get the least experienced or the most burnt out. Scali says that needs to change. As for change, the young woman in Baltimore says things are starting to turn around for her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm doing good. I'm still transitioning. You know, it's still a little bit hard, you know, being as I was raised up in institutions all my life. But I'm making it. I'm making it. I'm working, you know?

JOHNSON: She takes out her phone and shows off a picture of herself in her spiffy new work uniform. Her lawyer, the one who gave her a chance to change her life, beams at the sight. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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