Juvenile Indigent Defense Delivery System
Rhode Island provides counsel to indigent youth through a statewide public defense system. R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-58. The juvenile division of the Rhode Island Office of the Public Defender represents juveniles in delinquency and wayward proceedings at the trial and appellate levels. The system is entirely funded by the state. Conflict representation is handled by private attorneys appointed directly by the trial judge and funded by the state.
Rhode Island has no statutorily required or recommended training requirements or standards for attorneys representing youth in delinquency proceedings.
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. Rhode Island’s juvenile courts are governed by the Rhode Island Rules for Juvenile Proceedings.
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 Rhode Island, youth have the right to counsel in any Family Court hearing. R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-31. Youth specifically have the right to counsel at the following stages of delinquency proceedings:
- Informal adjustment procedures, R. Juv. P., Rule 4;
- Hearing on temporary detention, R. Juv. P., Rule 8(b);
- Probable cause hearing, R. Juv. P., Rule 8(c);
- Arraignment, R. Juv. P., Rule 9(a);
- Waiver of jurisdiction (transfer) hearings, R. Juv. P., Rule 12(b)(2);
- Adjudicatory hearing, R. Juv. P., Rule 9.
“Prior to the commencement of any hearing,” the court shall inform the relevant parties of their right to counsel and their right to have a public defender appointed if they are indigent. R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-31. Notice of the right to counsel is also provided in the summons for a hearing on a petition. R. Juv. P., Rule 6. Morris v. D’Amario specifies that the child and the parents must be notified in writing that the child has a right to the assistance of counsel at the placement proceedings and that if the family is indigent, counsel shall be appointed for the child. 416 A.2d 137, 141 (R.I. 1980).
Determination of Indigence
There is no presumption of indigence for juveniles in Rhode Island. Parents who have the financial means are expected to retain counsel to represent their children; in cases where juveniles are emancipated, or estranged from their families, or where the petition is filed by a parent, the juvenile’s financial eligibility is determined based upon his or her own assets. Applicants for public defense services must submit an affidavit of financial status and undergo an eligibility intake interview with the public defender office. R.I. Gen. Laws § 12-15-9. The public defender office, on its own initiative or at the court’s request, may require additional information or conduct an investigation. The public defender makes the determination of eligibility. The public defender shall appear on behalf of an accused delinquent child who is financially unable to afford counsel. R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-58.
Waiver of Counsel
Rhode Island does not have a specific juvenile statute or rule addressing a juvenile’s waiver of counsel. Case law indicates that waiver of counsel by indigent juveniles is permitted but should not routinely be allowed. In re John D., 479 A.2d 1173, 1178 (R.I. 1984). In general, the validity of a juvenile’s waiver of rights is assessed based on the totality of the circumstances. In re Kean, 520 A.2d 1271, 1276 (R.I. 1987). Adult case law indicates that waiver of counsel can be permitted if it is knowing, voluntary and intelligent. State v. Chabot, 682 A.2d 1377, 1379 (R.I. 1996).
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 Rhode Island, a detention hearing must occur on the next court day following detention of the child. R. Juv. P., Rule 8(a). If counsel is not available to consult with the child, the court may order one day of detention to allow the child to consult with an attorney, and depending on the county, may detain the child for up to seven days following the attorney consultation. R. Juv. P., Rule 8(b). Such temporary detention must be followed by a probable cause hearing within five to seven days, depending on the county. R. Juv. P., Rule 8(c).
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.
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. Rhode Island statutes list no post-disposition proceedings at which youth have a right to counsel.
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 Rhode Island:
- No statute specifies the youngest age at which a juvenile can be adjudicated delinquent;
- Juvenile court has jurisdiction over offenses alleged to have been committed prior to a child’s 18th birthday; after age 18, the youth is charged in adult court, R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-6;
- Juvenile court can retain jurisdiction over youth until age 19, provided that the offense alleged to have been committed occurred before the youth turned 18, R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-6
Youth in Adult Court
Despite the existence of juvenile courts, many youth are still tried as adults. Rhode Island has two ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:
- Discretionary Waiver: The juvenile court shall hold a waiver hearing, upon motion by the Attorney General, to determine if transfer to adult court is appropriate for any juvenile charge with a crime that would be punishable by life imprisonment had it been committed by an adult or for any juvenile age 16 or older charged with any offense constituting a felony. R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-7(a)–(b)
- Once an Adult, Always an Adult: R.I. Gen. Laws § 14-1-7.1(c).
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.
NJDC has not yet conducted an assessment of the juvenile indigent defense system in Rhode Island. If you would like to collaborate with NJDC to fundraise for, plan, or engage in an assessment in this state, please contact us.