Contract Counsel

Broken Contracts: Reimagining High-Quality Representation of Youth in Contract and Appointed Counsel Systems

A Report and Toolkit

Though juvenile courts process more than 850,000 juvenile delinquency cases every year, no comprehensive data exists regarding how many young people are represented by public defenders or contract, appointed, or assigned counsel. While talented lawyers practice in each type of defense system, studies that compare the results achieved by public defenders versus appointed counsel consistently find that people represented by appointed counsel fare worse than those represented by public defenders or retained counsel.

States, counties, and courts must actively work to ensure children receive the same quality of representation regardless of the type of lawyer assigned to represent each youth. One way to do this is to consider a system of contracting and oversight that enables independent attorney to benefit from the structure, management, training, mentorship, or support systems enjoyed by juvenile defense attorneys who work in salaried public defender systems.

This report defines the different types of juvenile defense systems at play across the U.S., discusses key difference between public defender systems and other systems – including funding and other supports – that may affect how juvenile defense attorneys perform, and identifies key components of creating effective appointed counsel and contract systems. Some of the keys to a successful contract defender system include independence of defender appointments, a system that incorporates oversight and accountability of defense counsel; the standardization of professional obligations; setting and maintaining qualifications for counsel to engage in this specialized area of the law; just compensation and funding; and thoughtful data collection and analysis.

The toolkit provides a path forward for those who wish to reimagine their current system in a way that is targeted to improve access to and quality of juvenile defense counsel. These pieces are:

For assistance utilizing these tools or implementing reform to your contract systems, please contact NJDC at or 202-452-0010.