Public Defenders’ Role in Juvenile Judicial System


In the US, a public defender means a legal practitioner who is picked by courts and given duties to represent those who may not afford to hire private attorneys. A juvenile offender is a person charged with a violation of law but they are under the age of eighteen in the US. The role of the public defender is to ensure there is a representation for all including the indigents hence, bring fairness in court proceedings. Through public defense, juveniles get a chance to express their minds thorough understanding of the concepts and operations that are evident in criminal justice administration. Challenges that affect the public defense system in the US include quality representation, inadequate funding, public criticism, and psychological constraints among others.

The public defender in the US court system addresses the challenges encountered by leveraging effective strategies such as training and lobbying to have the monetary allocation for the juvenile system budget in defense offices among other issues. The current system has impacted the juveniles by having a significant representation and boosting communication court of law. However, due to the loopholes, most of the young offenders have been subject to out-of-home placement or opt-counsel effects that arise due to impunity. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) was the landmark case that offered room for all persons to have a counsel who would represent them in a case. The current system does not stand exceptional despite major transformations. There is a need for a holistic approach that shall be people-centric in that juvenile offenders will have fair representation without major challenges.


In criminal law, juvenile offenders are individuals below eighteen years who are charged with violation of law. In the US, a violation of law by a person before they attain a later age is referred to as juvenile delinquency. The role of a public defender is to represent individuals who are not able to afford to hire a private attorney. The US government is responsible for employing these persons under state and federal laws. There are more than 9100 public defenders whereby 54% are women while men take the remaining portion (Campbell & Henderson, 2021 p.24). The public defense has several challenges that may determine the verdict of given cases within the US law. In terms of juvenile criminal justice administration, a public defender acts as the voice of children.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) case allowed all people in the US to have representation in court even if they cannot afford it. The main challenge that broadens to other issues is connecting with the young clients and delivering the required quality legal services without influence from third parties (Lensch et al., 2021). While undergoing legal trial, it may be a challenge whether a minor can read or understand questions that are being asked during the court session. Lack of self-awareness in most cases may be the trigger for inappropriate behavior that may be evident during judicial processes. Juvenile offenders are often challenged when it comes to effective mental health intervention which means there may be inadequacy to perform as per the regulations of the law.

Determination of indigence for the young offenders may be accompanied by various metrics. At times, it is expected that juvenile defendants pay for a public defender. According to the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC), 36 states resolved to be charging any state counsel provided and the fee may range from $10 for application and approximately $1000 for attorney representation (Papp et al., 2019 p.446). The worrying trend that is associated with public defense for a juvenile is the fact that attorneys favor the verdict and position by the court over that of the person they represent. Baglivio and Wolff (2017) found that in most cases, there is a worse outcome for the youths when cases are in the hands of private attorneys.

Literature Review

The reason why this research is being conducted s due to the rise in juvenile offenses which mostly involve the public defenders who leverage the matters in legal proceedings. As of 2019, the estimated number of arrests for juvenile crimes was 696,620 meaning all the accused persons were 18 years and below (Lensch et al., 2021 p.45). From the latest observation, there have been many demands on opening more public defense offices since young offenders add to the list of the people who are often accused of various crime issues. The Juvenile indigent defense has been on the rise and the government has been receiving insights from interest groups on the need to train and fund these professionals.

How Public Defense is Challenged

Quality Representation

The major obstacles that face public defense offices when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders are conceptualization and operationalization of quality representation and communication. Data from Campbell & Henderson (2021 p.16) shows that approximated figure for the criminal defenders who are indigent is 82% for the felony cases. In this case, the public defender will be required to appear in court and represent these needy groups. The lack of trust between the client and their attorney has been associated with the public defense for juveniles. When there is no transparency between the two parties, a public defender is often referred to as a ‘public pretender’. The escalation of the matter is evident during the court sessions where the potential to hinder communication is rampant and leads to a negative impact on the attorney-to-client relationship. The reason why these attorneys may not produce effective representation is that they are overworked and underpaid by the government (Campbell & Henderson, 2021). Thus, during court sessions, the young offenders may be victims of attorneys who fall prey to these challenges.

The role of public defenders in the US court system is to ensure there is improved public defense throughout the US. Through public defense, recidivism is lowered and that plays a key role in ensuring that the public is safe from tough legal measures that may be imposed when one is subjected to the criminal justice system without a hired attorney to represent them (Schmalleger, 2018). Therefore, if there is a challenge with the quality of representation within the public defender offices, it means that the US needs to set a methodology for preventing that from happening. An example is funding the institutions that play this role. For example, Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) has been effective in ensuring that challenges that public defense has in terms of financial measures are curled (Herring, 2020). Additionally, part of the role that a public defendant must play is to ensure fairness which has been limited more so, to the juvenile offenders.

Inadequate Funding

The number of felony cases has been increasing by the day and the juveniles have been associated with these matters. Dealing with children is not easy, especially where mental health is a concern to the offender. It is hard to discover mental problems for persons who are under age. The US has been having cases of budget slashes in the public defense offices despite the rise of cases involving children’s offenders (Lensch et al., 2021). When there are no sufficient funds to provide legal services, it becomes a challenge to offer quality service. Most public defenders may not be able to speak to their clients let alone investigation or preparation of the cases. The lack of adequate funds leads to a negative impact since the minors may unfairly suffer at the hands of criminal justice administrators.

It is important to consider training and exploration of public defense matters since they are facilitated by financial resources. There is a need to offer young people mental health guidance through state-sponsored programs so that the offenders get a chance to realize the repercussions of their acts concerning a given matter. Without enough funds, there will be increased cases of children who continue to break the law despite having been charged in court at one point. In that case, the purpose or role of the public defender will be to combat juvenile offenses by limiting the chances of committing a crime in the future (Nurmala, 2021). Thus, a lack of sufficient monetary aspects may inhibit the ability to discharge duties for the juvenile justice system stakeholders.

Prejudice and Critical Public

Most of the time the performance of defense attorneys has been evaluated based on the knowledge and competency and not the merit of the impact. That means public defenders are frequently judged by looking at the capability to secure a favorable verdict in a given trial compared to what is offered by the prosecution side (Papp et al., 2019). Thus, that has been a major challenge since it may influence the way they dispatch their duties due to the pressure from the juvenile defendants.

Additionally, this prejudice has been evident from the prosecutors who rarely give chance for the state-funded attorneys to express their concerns over a given matter during the trial. The issue is observed by Johnson and Leigey (2020) since the conflict of interest and impunity may be rampant in the process. The role of the public defender in juvenile criminal justice administration is to ensure that there is a representation for all people. However, on the issue of prejudice, the public may overlook the requirements or need to represent minors who have broken the law. For example, juvenile offenses such as murder, theft, and rape seem to get a negative preview from the majority.

Psychological Toll

Due to the criticism that public defenders receive from the public, they may be dissatisfied with their job. The intense ridicule from members of the public may lead to stress and emotional strain for the public defenders. Due to the jading, disillusioning and cynical society, these people may have psychological problems that may affect them and their families. Papp et al. (2019 p. 437) say that “When you become a legal aid lawyer, you think that you are going to be the champion of poor people… Slowly you begin to realize that maybe this prosecutor is not railroading every client and that maybe, in some cases, your client is guilty.” Representing Juvenile offenders is linked with creating room for moral decay for the future generation and that is why these professionals may be torn between taking part in the matter or disregarding which may be a breach of their ethics.


How Effectiveness of the Current Public Defense Affect Juveniles

As seen in the literature review, part of the role of public defenders in the US court system is to develop holistic service methodologies that incorporate social and legal matters without the growing constraints. The specialized public defenders for the juvenile have been working day and night to ensure there is flexibility in a multidisciplinary approach to juvenile defense. That role has been effective in combatting challenges that appear to make justice administration hard (Papp et al., 2019). Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has indicated that 42% of the youth arraigned in court say that they have an attorney with 50% of them getting the counsel from public defense offices (Gardner, 2018 p.137). Therefore, it means that the public defenders have been active in ensuring that they bar challenges that come while they are on duty as far as the juvenile criminal justice system is concerned.

Through the application of the public defense system, juveniles have been affected both negatively and positively. Implementation of legal protection for minors who conflict with the law has been advanced and as a result, fairness, justice, and transparency have been eased through the communication that is effectively done. The fact that public defenders are state-sponsored means a solution has been offered to curl these cases. For example, according to Schmalleger (2018), there has been prospective forecasting of juvenile homicide and possible juvenile offenders have been combatted through a series of programs that are offered in schools and the society at large. Through the prediction, an illustration of potential avenues for intervention has been evident. Therefore, that has served as an epitome of a long journey as far as the juvenile system is concerned.

A significant representation for the juveniles has been possible, thanks to the current public defense system in the US. For example, California and Pennsylvania data show that many of the youth are represented by a public defender. For example, in California, 22% of juvenile representatives in 2015 were appointed by the prosecution side with 70% being public defenders (OJJDP, 2018 p.2). Only 1% of the young offenders went unrepresented (OJJDP, 2018). Thus, it shows that with the current law measures on public defense, the juveniles have benefited significantly since there are only a few cases of justice delayed or denied.

The juvenile offenders have been positively impacted by the current public defendants in the US. On matters regarding communication, there was an improved level of the passing of communication that has built trust between the client and the counsels. Due to that, many juveniles get satisfied with the justice administration services. Henderson’s (2021) findings suggest that information sharing which includes providing the young offenders with a voice has been widely practiced in the juvenile courts. As a result, several cases have diverted the possible verdict from adverse to satisfactory one.

It is important to check on the negative side of this matter. Baglivio & Wolff’s (2017) research work shows that cases that involved state-appointed attorneys had adverse effects on the juveniles. For example, in Missouri, youths who went for the option of public counsel were subjected to out-of-home placement. The issue behind that matter would be associated with the lack of specific training which may be due to monetary resources to develop this matter as seen in the previous section (Baglivio & Wolff, 2017). Additionally, the juveniles face the placement due to co-opted counsel where the attorney does not legally rebuke the position held by the court.

Whether the Current System is Adequate

With the US court system allowing everyone to have a representative, the current public defense system is moderately adequate. There has been the development of delivery systems that are undertaken through the use of state-sponsored counsels. The number of people represented by public defenders is high and that shows a significant rise in the administration of justice among the US citizens (Colvin & Stenning, 2019). The interaction between client and attorney have been bettered through the formulation of public defender’s offices in all states. Therefore, the US might be far better when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders compared to many countries in the world.

However, the current system has various shortcomings. Firstly, the caseload standards seem to be insufficient and that means the country may go to a crisis level which threatens the criminal defense practice more so, for the young offenders. Many cases have been identified of convictions overturned or moved at a slow rate which means less efficacy administration of justice to the juveniles (Baglivio & Wolff, 2017). Despite public defense being integral to fairness, lack of funding may open loopholes for the impunity to thrive since public defenders represent the indigent. A money-minded person may conspire with the prosecution side to unfairly discharge duties. Thus, it might be a problem to achieve a federal-sponsored public defender’s office as the government might be uncertain of the breakthrough of the policies that would be set along.


The paper explored the role of public defenders in addressing challenges that come with public defense offices regarding the juvenile judicial system. Through the research that has been conducted, it is clear that there is a growing number of cases that involve state counsels representing youth offenders who are less than 18 years. The role of the public defenders is to ensure there is a holistic approach that seeks to have equal representations in courts for juvenile offenders. Among the challenges that have been associated with this venture include prejudice from the prosecution and public, inadequate funding that results in many cases of juveniles being delayed or disregarded, poor quality of criminal justice among the young offenders, and the psychological toll that affects the attorneys.

When it comes to the quality of judicial services, the juveniles often face an issue of lack of communication due to the holding of information whereby some counsels may be influenced by impunity while practicing legal matters. The role of public defenders is to formulate measures that push for changes that will transform juvenile representation. For example, there has been a priority to include public defense offices in the federal budget allocation. Additionally, to ensure there is equal representation of young offenders, the call for training and boosting of experience is evident and the US government is concerned with bettering the value of indigent defense through the allocation of funds, and sufficient pay for the people practicing law aligned to the juvenile justice system. There has been sensitization across all the states on the need to stop having criticism for individuals who practice law regarding juvenile justice administration.

In most of the sources that this paper has consulted, many scholars have expressed the growing concern of challenges faced by juvenile justice administration and the expectations for government and the counsels. However, little research has been done on why many teens are getting into critical issues such as homicides. There seems to be a research gap on the growing issues that show that many children may be depressed. Maybe it could be due to a lack of moral support for the indigent or vulnerable children. The truth of the matter is that the world has changed and so does the criminal justice administration in the US. Nowadays, depression cases are increasing and that means several minors have been taking the law into their hands. The bottom line is that there is a need to leverage the understanding of crime perspectives for the young offenders and assistance offered by all stakeholders such as the government, parents, and general society.

The relationship between juvenile indigence defense and public defenders is linked with the call for a world free of delinquencies especially that which may be passed from one generation to another. Society needs to embrace the moral lessons that will act as the guideline for the youth to prevent the escalation of violation of laws within the given set of individuals. The level of criminal offenses that have been happening in the US is alarming and that is why juvenile justice has been affected by the disregard for the provision of equal justice. If the role of public defenders in addressing challenges faced in the administration of juvenile justice is executed accordingly, there shall be no conflict between the defendants’ side with the prosecution of the attorney side.


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LawBirdie. "Public Defenders' Role in Juvenile Judicial System." October 5, 2023.