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 (2020). 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 (2020).

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) (2020). “If a juvenile appears at any hearing without counsel, the court shall appoint counsel for the juvenile prior to the commencement of the hearing.” Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 151; see also 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(1) (2020) (right to counsel at all hearings during delinquency proceedings). 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 if the child cannot afford counsel. 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). The juvenile code explicitly highlights a right to counsel at the following stages:

  • Detention hearings.  Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 242(A)(2).
  • Disposition hearings: The youth must be informed of “the right to counsel to prepare the [post-dispositional] motion and appeal.”  Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 512(C)(1)(d).

Determination of Indigence

Pennsylvania presumes that all children in delinquency cases are indigent. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(1) (2020). 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) (2020).

Waiver of Counsel

Pursuant to 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b) (2020), a child age 14 and over in Pennsylvania may waive their right to counsel only in 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: 
    a. Informal detention or shelter hearing;
    b. Transfer hearing to criminal proceedings;
    c. Adjudicatory hearing to consider evidence or acceptance of an admission to a delinquent act;
    d. Dispositional hearing; or
    e. A hearing to modify or revoke probation or other disposition.

The child’s guardian may not waive the child’s right to counsel. Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P.  152(C) 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 their right to counsel. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(5) (2020). 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) (2020). The child will be informed of their right to counsel at all subsequent hearings. 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(5) (2020).

Cash Bail:

Pennsylvania neither authorizes nor prohibits the use of bail in juvenile court by statute or court rule.

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) (2020).  Provisions for the detention of youth are found in 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 6324–27, 6331-32, 6335 (2020); 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 an explicit statutory right to counsel in the following post-disposition proceedings:

  • A hearing to modify or revoke probation or another disposition. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6337.1(b)(3)(vi) (2020).
  • With post-dispositional motions and appeal(s). R. Juv. Ct. P. 512(C)(4).

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:

  • The youngest age at which a child can be adjudicated delinquent is age 10. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6302 (2020).
  • 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. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6302 (2020).
  • Juvenile court can retain jurisdiction over youth until age 21, provided that the offense alleged to have been committed occurred before the youth turned 18. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6302 (2020).

Youth in Adult Court

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

  • For youth 14 and older accused of any felony after a hearing, the juvenile court may transfer jurisdiction of the youth to the adult criminal court if the juvenile court finds that a prima facie case for the allegations exists and that transfer would serve the public interest. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6355(a) (2020).
  • For youth age 14 and older accused of an offense involving a deadly weapon, and for youth age 15 and older who have previously adjudicated delinquent for a felony, there is a rebuttable presumption that matter be prosecuted in the adult criminal court, if the juvenile court finds a prima facie case for the charges exists. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6355(g) (2020).
  • For youth charged with murder or a list of other serious offense and where the juvenile court finds a prima facie case exists for the allegations, “the court shall require the offense to be prosecuted under the criminal law and procedures,” unless the criminal court has already given up its jurisdiction. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6355(e) (2020).
  • Any child already found guilty in a criminal proceeding is not entitled to a have their case transferred back to juvenile court. 42 Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6322(a) (2020).

Collateral Consequences

Involvement with the delinquency system can affect a youth’s employment, housing, and educational opportunities, leaving the young person with tremendous hurdles as they transition to adulthood. The NJDC Collateral Consequences Page provides more information about collateral consequences of juvenile court involvement. In a variety of states, NJDC has worked with local partners to create youth and family-friendly guides that provide general information about the collateral consequences of juvenile court involvement, how to overcome these hurdles, and resources to assist in reducing the harm of having a juvenile record. NJDC has not yet created a guide for Pennsylvania. We hope to do so in the near future.

State Race Statistics

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) provides juvenile justice profiles for all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Specifically, the data compares the Black, non-Hispanic proportion of the youth population of each state, with the national average, as well as the Hispanic proportion of the youth population of each state with the national average. The data also provides the ratio of youth of color to white youth in residential placement in each state and compares it with the national average.   

OJJDP Juvenile Justice State Profiles can be accessed here.


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 November 2020.