Justice Department Applauds Settlement to Improve Juvenile Right to Counsel in Georgia
The Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, signed a consent decree today in N.P. et al. v. State of Georgia, et al., a class action suit asserting that the public defense system in the Cordele Judicial Circuit is so underfunded and poorly staffed that indigent adults and juveniles accused of committing criminal acts are routinely denied their right to legal representation. In March 2015, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case, reaffirming the department’s commitment to enforcing the due process rights of children generally and, in particular, the need for children to consult with an attorney prior to waiving their Constitutional right to counsel. One month after the department’s filing, the parties, with the assistance of U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of the Middle District of Georgia, who served as mediator, resolved the case and submitted a joint consent decree to the court.
The proposed settlement, if implemented, would mark a major step forward in the safeguarding the right to counsel for both juveniles and adults. Specifically, the settlement would, among other things, require:
the representation of children in juvenile court in the circuit to be by a lawyer who specializes in juvenile law and childhood and adolescent development;
on notice from the court, a public defender from the juvenile division shall speak to any indigent juvenile who seeks to waive counsel and describe services of counsel available to the juvenile and the benefits of representation;
all people, including children, arrested in the circuit and detained in its jails to consult with a lawyer in no more than three business days;
the size of the Cordele Circuit Public Defender Office to nearly double, increasing from two full-time assistant public defenders to four, and from one full-time investigator to two; and
significant and relevant training requirements for public defenders.
“This settlement recognizes that independent, ethical, and zealous counsel are essential to protecting the due process rights of juveniles,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division. “The Civil Rights Division will continue to ensure that juveniles across the nation are provided the vital protection of counsel.”
“I am pleased to have played some small part in bringing this matter to a resolution that will benefit the people of the Cordele Judicial Circuit for years to come,” said U.S. Attorney Moore. “As lawyers, all of us, including the named defendants in this case, understand the importance of providing representation to those who have been charged with a criminal or delinquent act. This agreement puts meat on the bones of that process, and guarantees that individuals who are facing criminal cases in the Cordele Circuit will not only have representation, but truly meaningful representation as they navigate the judicial system. This resolution is good for the accused, it is good for the court system, and it is good for the people of the state of Georgia. I want to thank my friends, Attorney General Sam Olens and Solicitor General Britt Grant, for helping all involved reach a consensus in this matter, and I want to acknowledge the courageous filing on behalf of the plaintiffs that brought this to our attention by Steve Bright.”
“We congratulate the parties on coming together and taking the steps necessary to improve justice for both adults and juveniles in the Cordele Judicial Circuit,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice. “The agreement upholds the core principles of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments and represents a model for the rest of Georgia and for the country.”
In N.P., the plaintiffs alleged that the public defense system in the Cordele Judicial Circuit had been so underfunded and poorly staffed that indigent adults and juveniles accused of committing criminal acts were routinely denied their right to legal representation. In its statement of interest, the department focused solely on the due process rights of children accused of delinquency. The department applied In re Gault and other case law to identify procedural safeguards that must be provided to children who appear before the court. The Civil Rights Division has worked to expand access to counsel in juvenile delinquency proceedings. For example, the division is currently enforcing an agreement in Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee, that, among other remedies, requires the county and the local juvenile court to develop and support a juvenile public defense system. The division is also engaged in a federal suit against the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi, two youth court judges in Lauderdale County, and the state of Mississippi, alleging that they are violating the due process rights of juveniles in Meridian who are referred for law enforcement action by public schools.
In its statement of interest, the department asserted that children are denied their right to counsel not only when an attorney is entirely absent, but also when an attorney is available in name only. It provided the court with a framework to assess the plaintiffs’ claim that the defendants are depriving young people accused of delinquency of their right to counsel. As the department summarized in the statement of interest, “due process requires that every child who faces the loss of liberty should be represented from their first appearance through, at least, the disposition of their case by an attorney with the training, resources and time to effectively advocate the child’s interest. If a child decides to waive the right to an attorney, courts must ensure that the waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary by requiring consultation with counsel before the court accepts the waiver.”
The case was filed in 2014 and brought by indigent adults and juveniles who faced criminal and delinquency charges in the Cordele Judicial Circuit.