Youth who are charged with a crime in North Carolina are presumed indigent and appointed counsel.
Representing young people can be challenging but exceedingly rewarding. These specialized lawyers, while not usually high profile, are among the most dedicated in the state. But an assessment of juvenile counsel ten years ago prompted the legal community to take a hard look in the mirror. In October 2003, a report released by the American Bar Association and the National Juvenile Defender Center described deficiencies with juvenile defense counsel in North Carolina. Among those deficiencies included inadequate preparation of cases, insufficient contact with clients, a lack of vigorous trial advocacy, a high rate of pleas, and tepid advocacy at the trial or adjudicatory stage. Defense counsel had no consistent training opportunities and no resource for technical assistance with cases. In addition, there were no standards qualifying attorneys to practice in delinquency court, no performance guidelines, and no consensus on what the role of defense counsel in delinquency proceedings should be. In an effort to address these concerns and restore faith in the quality of legal services youth were receiving, the Office of Indigent Defense Services created a statewide Office of the Juvenile Defender (“OJD”) in 2004. OJD, the first stand-alone agency of its kind in the nation, was tasked with twenty immediate, short and long term goals to address the findings of the ABA report. Initial reaction to the formation of OJD was skeptical. After this largely negative report, how would attorneys respond to the challenge of reform? Could this experiment of a centralized organization help improve the quality of counsel and create a more cohesive community of attorneys? Turns out that the answer to both questions over the next decade would be a resounding “yes.” First and foremost attorneys have embraced the challenge of improving their practice. More attorneys are focusing their practice on delinquency representation, whether the attorneys are assistant public defenders, contract counsel, private attorneys on local indigent lists, or law school clinic students and professors. Attorneys are regularly attending annual, specialized trainings spearheaded by the UNC School of Government. Lawyers are seeking out advice from their peers through delinquency dedicated listserves or technical assistance through consultations with OJD or the many resources available on our website. Attorneys are trying cases and protecting the rights of their clients. Trial counsel are identifying issues at the adjudication stage, appealing issues, and changing the law, most notably via the U.S. Supreme Court case J.D.B. v. N.C., superbly argued by appellate counsel through the state Office of the Appellate Defender. OJD’s other efforts have largely been focused on tools and initiatives to improve quality. Our office consults with trial, appellate, and criminal counsel to spot issues and brainstorm strategies. A statement on the role of defense counsel in delinquency proceedings was crafted and adopted by the Indigent Defense Services Commission. Model qualification standards were drafted to assist local jurisdictions in ensuring juvenile defense counsel are properly prepared in handling cases. Performance guidelines outlining best practices in delinquency court have been disseminated to the delinquency defense bar. Where appropriate to improve quality, OJD has identified contractors to specialize in delinquency representation. The legal community has stepped up its support of this practice as well. More Public Defender Offices now place attorneys in delinquency court. The North Carolina Advocates for Justice, a voluntary organization for criminal defense and plaintiff attorneys, formed a Juvenile Defense Section to help build a community of defenders. The North Carolina State Bar created a Sub-Specialty of Juvenile Delinquency representation, one of only a few state bars to recognize this area of expertise. There are still noticeable areas yet to be improved. Attorneys must continue to make every effort to have meaningful contact with their clients prior to court. Filing effective pre-hearing motions to challenge legal issues, which has improved, should continue to be a focus of delinquency practice. Finally, attorneys should provide the court with disposition plans, focusing on evidence-based rehabilitation, drafted from the position of their clients. But overall we believe that North Carolinians should feel confident in the quality of counsel their children are receiving in juvenile delinquency court.
By:Eric J. Zogry, Juvenile Defender, North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services