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Hearings to begin on juvenile defense rights

Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing Michigan
Megan Schellong

A pair of committees will convene for a joint hearing on bills to ensure juveniles facing delinquency charges have proper legal assistance.

Bills before the House Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee are built around recommendations made by a task force that worked for two years on overhauling the juvenile justice system.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, who leads the state’s judicial branch of government, supports the bills. She said the state needs consistent standards across all jurisdictions for representing kids facing delinquency charges in juvenile courts. She said the goal is to ensure that kids in the juvenile system charged with delinquency have the same rights as people charged in adult courts.

“To really make sure that youth and their families that are involved in the justice system have the same level of quality representation as adults do in the adult criminal system,” she said. Clement said that includes having attorneys who are appropriately trained and compensated to work in this specialized legal field.

“Having a young person represented by an attorney that understands the law, understands what the consequences are every step of the way, it helps young people and their families understand a system that until you’re part of it, you have no idea what’s at stake.”

Kristen Staley is the executive director of the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission. She said a shortage of attorneys in the juvenile system for families who cannot afford representation on their own is unfair. She said adults charged with theft and similar crimes already have the right to an attorney regardless of their ability to pay.

“We don’t have the same thing for kids and it’s a major problem,” she said. “Frankly, the kids, they deserve just as much, they have the same constitutional rights to counsel, but they’re being pushed aside and this is an opportunity to bring kids back into the fold.”

She said the standards would not apply to minors facing charges of murder or other violent felonies because they are typically charged as adults and are, thus, already entitled to public defenders.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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