This article was published in coordination with Zealousan organization working to amplify the perspective of public defenders.
As a youth defense attorney in Brooklyn, over the past five years, I have witnessed firsthand the criminalization of youth. New York City is often hailed for its diversity, but the overwhelming majority of children I’ve portrayed are black and Latino/a. I could probably count on one hand the number of young white people I’ve represented.
Many people assume that when children are arrested and appear in court, they must have done something terrible. But most kids pushed into the juvenile justice system are there because they behaved like a typical teenager — they just couldn’t get away with it because of their race and ethnicity.
Every day, young people across the country find themselves entangled in the juvenile justice system, often for common teenage behaviors like skipping school, drinking alcohol or getting into fights. Once they get involved in the system, juvenile courts can unleash the power of the state to put them in irons, detain them, monitor their movements, impose fees and fines that can result in lasting debt. and permanently mark their locker. All of this can happen without a lawyer by their side to explain what’s going on, strategize with them, and make their case.
This practice of leaving children helpless in juvenile court has long been illegal. On May 15, 1967, a U.S. Supreme Court case, In re Gault, guaranteed the right to due process for all children facing juvenile court, including the fundamental right to counsel. The Supreme Court has recognized that without a lawyer who stands by and upholds the rights of the child, the legal protections given to the child are essentially meaningless. But 55 years later, children often face the punitive hand of juvenile courts without a lawyer to defend their rights. States thwart a child’s constitutional right to an attorney through a series of loopholes that include charging fees, delaying the appointment of an attorney, and creating incentives for a child to waive their right to a lawyer.
Our Country’s Neglect of the Fundamental Right to Counsel Gault is both revealing and, unfortunately, unsurprising. The juvenile justice system has always caused disproportionate harm to some young people. These disparities reflect the neglect of these communities by our elected officials and other leaders. Youth harmed by the justice system come from the same communities where schools, hospitals, jobs and playgrounds lack resources and funding, perpetuating the pillars of structural racism that target and channel young black, Latino/a and indigenous to young people. law courts.
There’s a simple reason for racial disparities in juvenile court: the system was designed to be exactly that way. Prior to the 20th century, children in America were valued for their ability to contribute to the workforce. In the 1830s, as America began to develop a middle class with the rise of industrialization, the concept of “adolescence” was born. States began to pass the first protective child labor laws to preserve this period of childhood as a time set aside for growth, education and play. But black children were enslaved during this period. From the start, the notion of adolescence was a social construct designed by white families to idealize white children; it was never meant to protect black children or allow them to thrive.