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N.H. Public Defender Reacts to Report on Juvenile Delinquency Cases

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JOE GRATZ / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
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A national non-profit released a report this month assessing how New Hampshire handles juvenile delinquency cases.

The National Juvenile Defender Center says legal representation for juveniles in the state is "gravely undervalued," which leads to inadequate access to attorneys and unneccesary reates of probation and court involvement.

The group focused much of its report on the role of the New Hampshire Public Defender, which contracts with the state to provide counsel to indigent clients, including juveniles. NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Randy Hawkes, the director for the New Hampshire Public Defender.

Rick Ganley: You've said you agree with most of this report, except for one key finding that defenders are prevented from providing youth with the representation that the Constitution demands. But public defenders do face challenges in representing juvenile cases here in the state. Can you talk more about that?

Randy Hawkes: Sure. But as a preliminary matter, let me say this, that the [National Juvenile Defender Center] is an advocacy group, and their objective is to persuade state legislators to provide greater funding for youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Now, that's absolutely a right minded goal that I agree with, and I agree with the overarching themes of the report, and I agree with many of its conclusions. However, as advocacy groups tend to do, the [National Juvenile Defender Center] hyperbolized their argument and they framed the report in a way that implies juveniles are being grossly underserved by defense counsel.

That led to a headline in the Union Leader saying New Hampshire youth need better lawyers in juvenile court, and I have to set the record straight. When they say that the public defenders are not providing juveniles with the representation that the Constitution demands, that's frankly simultaneously scurrilous and laughable. A broad, inaccurate statement like that serves only to create an impression that public defenders don't care about their clients when nothing could be further from the truth.

Rick Ganley: Well, the report highlights many things, how public defenders, for one, often have limited time to spend with juvenile clients. Are they spending enough time? Do they have the resources they need to do the job properly?

Randy Hawkes: Well, that's one of the major themes running throughout the report, that public defenders could provide even better representation for juveniles if they didn't have such high caseloads. It's hard to argue with that. But as publicly funded advocates, in a time of scant resources, public defenders have to be efficient as well as effective. The contract between public defender in the state sets a cap on the number of open and active cases that our lawyers should carry. The maximum number is 70. Currently, two thirds of public defenders have over 100 open cases.

Cases that high force attorneys to triage. They allot time to cases based on the seriousness and complexity, pressing and immediate requirements, anticipated outcomes. They have to ask themselves, does my client face serious consequences or is the charge a relatively minor infraction? Will we reach a negotiated disposition? Will this case go to trial? Is my client incarcerated or awaiting disposition? Are court imposed time limits a factor? Juvenile matters are given the same consideration as adult cases when lawyers have to conduct this type of triage.

Rick Ganley: But the report highlights cases where, you know, sometimes these juvenile [defendants] are not meeting with their attorney until they walk into court. Sometimes they have no idea who's representing them, and sometimes they even waive the right to counsel. Is that right?

Randy Hawkes: Are there occasions when perhaps they have not had the opportunity to meet with a client? Yes, that can happen. But when you're dealing with 1,100 cases a year, there can be situations where a parent won't bring a child in for a meeting with an attorney, or there's no ability to communicate because they don't have any minutes on their phone or something like that. But it's unfortunate that it goes to advance their agenda by citing a lot of untrue things.

The claims that most juvenile cases are given to first year public defenders, that public defenders handling juvenile cases are untrained, unprepared and unsupported, or that after three years, public defenders move on from juvenile work, that juveniles often or always plead true, which is the juvenile version of guilty, and that in [the New Hampshire Public Defender] doesn't value the juveniles sent to the Sununu Youth Services Center. All those statements and implications are demonstrably false.

Rick Ganley: Well, looking forward, looking at possible reforms, what would you like to see happen as far as reform goes with New Hampshire's juvenile justice system?

Randy Hawkes: I agree with a lot of the findings, as I said, that the report had. For example, having a lawyer present for interrogation. Kids are vulnerable to manipulation. [Haivng] lawyers at arraignment, I would support. Until resources allow, I would support more stringent restrictions on prosecutors offering deals to kids who don't have counsel present at arraignment. I would encourage judges to be more vigilant about not accepting pleas at arraignment. I support expansion of diversion programs. Once kids enter the system as delinquent, outcomes for them will be inevitably worse. Using delinquency and probation as a services delivery system isn't the optimal mode to ensure good outcomes, that's for sure.

Elimination of racial disparities in the juvenile system -- I'm somewhat optimistic that of late consciousness of implicit bias and discriminatory practices is being raised among stakeholders. But again, I fear the system is being used to provide services to Black and Hispanic youth, to immigrant and refugee populations, to members of the LGBTQ community who would be better served outside the system. And ultimately the recommendation that we someday see lower caseloads that allow us to spend additional time with juveniles who require special attention. Public defenders do an excellent job on behalf of their clients every day. Could the services be improved with more resources? Absolutely. But this is a tough time to be asking for additional resources.

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