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Juveniles poorly defended, study says

Florida courts routinely let indigent juvenile defendants give up their right to legal counsel, and when children do get lawyers, they often are inexperienced and overworked, a study released Monday says.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published October 24, 2006


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TALLAHASSEE - Florida courts routinely let indigent juvenile defendants give up their right to legal counsel, and when children do get lawyers, they often are inexperienced and overworked, a study released Monday says.

The National Juvenile Defender Center's report also faults Florida for putting the least experienced judges on the juvenile bench, pressuring children to plead guilty and possibly prejudicing their cases by bringing them into court in shackles.

The study was conducted with support from the state Supreme Court and the Florida Bar and Florida Public Defender associations. It concluded that efforts to improve the juvenile defense system have been limited by money and "lack of political will."

The authors, center director Patricia Puritz and Cathryn Crawford of Northwestern University Law School's Children and Family Justice Center, make several recommendations. They include requiring that children talk with a lawyer before waiving their right to counsel, because they may not realize the consequences of a juvenile conviction.

Observers sent to courts in 10 of Florida's 20 circuits found children routinely waived their right to a lawyer, often "with a wink and a nod - or even encouragement - from judges."

"Most of the recommendations are very good ideas; the findings are well warranted," said Carlos Martinez, vice president of the Public Defender Association and chief assistant public defender in Miami.

Martinez said overcrowded dockets are a major reason that children are encouraged to waive their right to a lawyer and plead guilty.

The Florida Senate this year passed a bill that would have required a child to consult with a lawyer before waiving right to counsel, but it died in the House.

Study observers included Barry University law professor Gerard Glynn, chairman of the Bar Association's Legal Needs of Children Committee.

Glynn said the one of most shocking things he saw was the use of shackles on juveniles.

While handcuffs are removed from adult defendants in the presence of jurors, there's a presumption that judges, who decide juvenile cases without juries, will not be biased by the sight of a shackled child. There may, though, be at least a subconscious effect, Glynn said.

"They are human," he said. "The judge is going to view that person differently."

Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Tara Collins said the agency transports defendants in shackles and handcuffs for security reasons but would comply with judges' orders to remove them in the courtroom.

"Some of the youthful suspects are accused of serious crimes," Collins noted.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 00:28:07]


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