Juvenile Indigent Defense Delivery System


Pennsylvania provides counsel to indigent youth through county public defenders. Each county except Philadelphia is statutorily required to appoint a public defender, and the public defenders are responsible for representing youth in delinquency matters. 16 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9960.3, 9960.6. The Public Defender Act is interpreted as requiring counties (except Philadelphia County) to pay for the cost of public defenders. Counties must also pay for the appointment of conflict defenders when needed. 16 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9960.7.

Pennsylvania has no statutorily required or recommended training requirements or standards for attorneys representing youth in delinquency proceedings. The Juvenile Defender Association of Pennsylvania (JDAP), a statewide membership organization supporting quality legal representation for youth in delinquency proceedings, has issued nonbinding Performance Guidelines for Quality and Effective Juvenile Delinquency Representation.

Court Rules

In addition to statutes and case law, juvenile court proceedings are governed by court rules. These are often promulgated at the state level, but may also be passed at the local court level instead of or in addition to statewide rules. Pennsylvania’s juvenile court rules are called the Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure, Delinquency Matters.

Right to Counsel

Beyond the right to counsel in juvenile court guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), states often have state constitution or statutory provisions further expanding upon on or delineating that right.

In Pennsylvania, youth in juvenile court have the right to counsel at all stages of any proceedings, and if they cannot afford counsel, the court will appoint counsel. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6337-6337.1(b). “If a juvenile appears at any [delinquency] hearing without counsel, the court shall appoint counsel for the juvenile prior to the commencement of the hearing.” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 151. If a juvenile is given a summons to appear in court, the summons must inform the juvenile of his or her right to counsel, and the right to assigned counsel where the juvenile is indigent. Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 124.

Once appointed, an attorney is to represent a child “until final judgment, including any proceeding upon direct appeal and dispositional review, unless permitted to withdraw….” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 150(B). Juveniles explicitly have the right to counsel at the following stages:

Determination of Indigence

Pennsylvania presumes that all children in delinquency cases are indigent. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b). This presumption can be rebutted if the court determines that “the child has the financial resources to retain counsel of his choice at his own expense,” and the court cannot consider financial resources of the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian in that determination. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(1).

Waiver of Counsel

A juvenile age 14 and over in Pennsylvania may waive his or her right to counsel the following limited circumstances:

The child’s parent, guardian or custodian may not waive counsel for a child. Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 152 cmt.. Waiver only applies to the hearing at which the right to counsel is waived, waiver can be revoked at any time, and at subsequent hearings the court shall inform the youth of his or her right to counsel. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(5). If a child waives the right to counsel, the court may appoint stand-by counsel. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(4).

Detention Provisions

When and how the court may decide to detain a child or otherwise place restrictions on the child’s freedom is defined by statute and court rules.

In Pennsylvania, a detention hearing must occur within 72 hours of the child being detained. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6332(a).  Provisions for the detention of juveniles are found in 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6324–6327, 6331, 6332, 6335, 6337; and Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 240-243.

The U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court case law are also sources of due process rights beyond local and state statutes and provisions. NJDC’s Detention Page provides more information about detaining youth.

Post-Disposition Advocacy

The legal needs of children in the delinquency system rarely end at disposition, and states vary in the way they provide a right to representation on these post-disposition issues.

In Pennsylvania, youth have a right to counsel in the following post-disposition proceedings:

NJDC’s Post-Disposition Page has more information on this topic from a national perspective.

Ages of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

The age of a child who comes within the jurisdiction of the state’s juvenile courts is defined by state law. In Pennsylvania:

Youth in Adult Court

Despite the existence of juvenile courts, many youth are still tried as adults. Pennsylvania has three ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:


NJDC conducts statewide assessments of access to counsel and the quality of juvenile defense representation in delinquency proceedings around the country. These assessments provide a state with baseline information about the nature and efficacy of its juvenile indigent defense structures, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the indigent juvenile defense system, and provide tailored recommendations that address each state’s distinctive characteristics to help decision-makers focus on key trouble spots and highlight best practices. The NJDC State Assessment Page provides more information about state assessments.

The Pennsylvania Assessment was completed in 2003.


Current through June 2017.