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 unless there is a conflict of interest. 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 are presumed indigent. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6337; 6337.1(b)(1). “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 youth is given a summons to appear in court, the summons must inform the child of their right to counsel, and the right to assigned counsel where the child is indigent. Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 124(A)(3).

Once appointed or an appearance has been entered, an attorney is to represent a youth “until final judgment, including any proceeding upon direct appeal and dispositional review, unless permitted to withdraw….” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 150(B). Youth 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 child age 14 and over in Pennsylvania may waive their right to counsel the following limited circumstances:

  1. “The waiver is knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made;
  2. The court conducts a colloquy with the juvenile on the record; and
  3. The proceeding for which waiver is sought is not one of the following:” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 152(A).
    a. “[Informal] detention hearing pursuant to [Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 242];
    b. Transfer hearing pursuant to [Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 394];
    c. Adjudicatory hearing, [including the acceptance of an admission] pursuant to [Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 406];
    d. Dispositional hearing pursuant to [Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 512]; or
    e. A hearing to modify or revoke probation pursuant to [Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 612].” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 152(A)(3)(a)-(e)

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 no later than 72 hours of the child being detained. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6332(a).  Provisions for the detention of youth are found in 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6324–6327, 6331, 6332, 6335; 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 youth 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 youth 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 youth 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 July 2018.