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Politics & Government

Young People Had More Legal Representation In Juvenile Court Thanks To A Recent Law, Report Shows

BOB WESTON/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The Sanpete County Courthouse in Manti, Utah. Between October 2020 and January 2021, Voices For Utah Children found juvenile delinquency hearings almost always had a defense attorney present in counties across the state.

In 2018, the advocacy and research organization Voices for Utah Children observed almost 200 juvenile delinquency court proceedings.

They found kids didn’t have legal representation about a third of the time.

According to a new report released Wednesday, 95% of the juvenile hearings Voices for Utah Children monitored in the past year had a defense attorney present.

Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with the organization, said that’s largely due to a bill passed by the state Legislature in 2019.

“The new law basically said that all kids are just assumed to be too poor to afford a lawyer,” Thomas said. “So they should be automatically appointed a public defender until it's determined that they have a private lawyer that they want to pay for themselves.”

The analysis also found young people almost never waived their right to an attorney after the law went into effect. Thomas said it happened more frequently in the past for a lot of reasons, including pressure from parents and families mistakenly thinking they would have to foot the bill for a public defender.

Pam Vickrey, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, said it’s critical for young people to really understand the judicial process. That’s where legal counsel comes in.

“If you're talking to a young person, they might not fully understand what admitting to a second-degree felony means,” Vickrey said. “The importance of defense counsel is being able to sit down with a young person and assess where they are in their development, make sure they're actually understanding what they're being accused of doing, but also understanding what the long-term consequences are of how they handle it.”

As a next step, Voices For Utah Children recommended the state Legislature put money toward assessing the quality of legal counsel kids are receiving.

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