The woman approached me tentatively. “May I ask you a question?”
“Where is the court for the white kids?” Her question was earnest and sensible.
Frank Vandervort is Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School (courtesy photo)
This conversation took place not long ago in the hallway of the Washtenaw County courthouse. The woman, a retired nurse and white, was involved with a community group that was advocating for restorative justice programming in the county’s legal system and involved in a court-watching project. She had just spent the morning observing on a random day the docket of juvenile delinquency hearings in which almost every child hauled before the court was a Black boy.
For decades, Michigan’s juvenile justice system has disproportionately impacted children of color, particularly Black and Latino boys. Researchers across the county and in Michigan have repeatedly found that African-American and Latino children are over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice process — arrest, pre-trial detention, disposition, placement in confinement (juvenile prison).
Similarly, children of color are disproportionately tried in adult court and incarcerated in adult prisons. For example, in 2017, Black kids made up14 percent of all youth in the country, yet 54 percent of the youth prosecuted as adults for property crimes and 58 percent prosecuted as adults for acts of violence were Black despite the fact that Black and white youth — 68 percent of the youth population — commit crime at similar rates.
A just-released report from the National Juvenile Defender Center helps to explain why. The report details the poor quality of legal representation Michigan’s children receive when charged with juvenile delinquency. Among the causes of poor representation are:
- A lack of statewide standards for lawyers who represent children in delinquency proceedings.
- There is no statewide funding mechanism to provide competent representation for children, most of whom come from poor families.
- Lawyers appointed by county courts lack the training, resources (for example, access to investigators and expert consultants) and time to provide effective representation.
- Children and their families are too often ordered to pay fees, fines and costs, and their lawyers do little to advocate for these fees to be reduced.
- These fees sometimes include reimbursement for the cost of lawyers, which puts pressure on children to simply waive their right to be represented by counsel, something no adult would do in similar circumstances.
In 2015, the State Court Administrative Office partnered with several other entities to develop a guidebook to assist local communities in addressing the disproportionate handling of children of color in the legal system. It seems to have made no difference.
To remedy the disparate racial impact of the state’s juvenile justice system, the new report’s authors suggest, Michigan should establish statewide oversight of its juvenile defenders, as it recently has done with adult criminal defendants. It should also establish mandatory minimum standards for lawyers who handle cases of juvenile delinquency. This will require increased funding to ensure that lawyers for poor children have the same resources available to defend children that prosecutors have to prosecute them. Getting those resources will require leadership from Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, Governor Whitmer and our state legislature.
More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a child charged with delinquency has the right to be represented by a lawyer. For nearly as long, the Court has made clear that the right to a lawyer means the right to competent representation. The newly released report makes clear that in Michigan, that right exists mostly on paper, and not in practice. Until that changes, our juvenile justice system will disproportionately impact our Black and Brown children.