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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) recently released Arizona: Bringing Gault Home, An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Juvenile Defense Counsel, a comprehensive examination of the systemic and institutional barriers preventing children from receiving high-quality legal representation and access to justice in Arizona. Since its release, Bringing Gault Home has already made an impact. The report was covered by The Arizona Republic and an NPR affiliate and is leading to important conversations among stakeholders.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to conduct a juvenile defense assessment in Arizona, the birthplace of In re Gault, the case that established juvenile defense as we know it,” said NJDC executive director Mary Ann Scali.

Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming children’s constitutional right to due process, originated in Gila County, Arizona. NJDC’s assessment found that while some Arizona counties have responded to the mandates of Gault by ensuring children are represented by counsel throughout their court involvement, others continue to operate in ways nearly unchanged from the time prior to Gault, with little to no consideration of due process.

Before Gault, juvenile courts operated in a haphazard manner, with decision makers using unbridled discretion to impose what they perceived to be in the “best interest” of the child, without concern for legal standards. This assessment found Arizona courts that continue to operate this way, valuing an informal court culture and collegiality among adult stakeholders over due process and youth success. In these courts, defense attorneys often do not advocate for their clients’ stated interests or zealously assert their defenses, the state’s case is not appropriately tested, probation officers inappropriately play the role of defender and prosecutor, and the courts fail to uphold children’s constitutional rights.

“One of the most troubling findings of the Arizona assessment is the overwhelming number of fees and costs levied against youth and families,” Scali said. “Children and families are charged for every aspect of the court system, from being held in detention to probation treatment and services. Troublingly, children are charged fees to access lawyers who are supposed to be provided for free. These financial burdens have real, lasting, negative impacts: they drive youth deeper into the court system and mire them in debt that hinders their ability to successfully continue their education and find employment.”

Bringing Gault Home recommends that Arizona abolish all fees and costs associated with access to a publicly funded juvenile defender and all other costs related to juvenile court. Importantly, the assessment found no evidence that Arizona counties experience any significant financial gain by imposing costs and fees in juvenile court.

The assessment’s other recommendations include: automatically appointing counsel to all youth, giving youth an opportunity to consult with a lawyer prior to the court considering accepting any waiver of counsel, appointing counsel for all youth prior to their first appearance before a judge, ensuring access to counsel for youth post-disposition, improving the collection and reportability of data, implementing policies and practices to address significant racial disparities, and ensuring youth receive legal representation that is individualized and rooted in adolescent development, among other key improvements.

“We are sincerely grateful for the cooperation and expertise of juvenile justice stakeholders across Arizona. This assessment would not have been possible without their commitment to improving justice for Arizona’s children,” Scali said. “We look forward to working with defense attorneys, judges, policymakers, and others to improve young people’s access to justice and to high-quality, specialized juvenile defense.”

The Arizona Assessment is the 24th assessment NJDC has conducted. All assessments are available here.

About the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC):

The National Juvenile Defender Center is dedicated to promoting justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense. Through community building, training, and policy reform, we provide national leadership on juvenile defense issues with a focus on advancing young people's rights in the court system. For more information, please visit our website at www.njdc.info.