Juvenile Indigent Defense Delivery System
Puerto Rico provides counsel to indigent youth through the Sociedad para Asistencia Legal (Legal Aid Society), which has offices throughout the commonwealth.
Puerto Rico has no statutory requirements, 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. Puerto Rico’s juvenile court rules are called the Rules of Procedure for Minors’ 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 Puerto Rico, youth in juvenile court have the right to counsel “[i]n every procedure.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 13.6. Puerto Rico law also explicitly provides for counsel at probable cause hearings and adjudicatory hearings. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I‑A, § 2.10; P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 7.1.
Determination of Indigence
Puerto Rico has no presumption of indigence in juvenile court proceedings. A child has the right to have counsel appointed if they do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 13.6. The court must appoint defense counsel “when it is deemed necessary” or when the parents or guardian do not appear with the child. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2237(f).
Waiver of Counsel
A youth may waive their right to counsel if their parents or guardians and attorney are present, and the judge determines that the waiver is given freely, knowingly, and with awareness of the consequences of such waiver. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 13.8. The presence of an attorney is not required to waive the right to counsel. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 13.8.
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 Puerto Rico, a probable cause hearing must be held within seven days of the child’s apprehension. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 2.9(d). Minors may only be detained via court order. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2220. Other relevant provisions for the detention of youth are found in the P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, §§ 2.1 – 2.7, 2.13, 2.15 – 2.16.
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. Puerto Rico Court Rules indicate that a minor shall have the right to counsel in every proceeding against them. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34 Ap. I-A, § 13.6.
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 Puerto Rico:
- No statute specifies the youngest age at which a youth 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. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2203(o).
- 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 and the youth has not been convicted as an adult. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2205.
Youth in Adult Court
Despite the existence of juvenile courts, many youth are still tried as adults. Puerto Rico has three ways that youth can be prosecuted as adults:
- Discretionary Waiver: The prosecutor may request a hearing for waiver to criminal court for youth over 14 and under 18 years of age who commit certain offenses. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2215.
- Statutory Exclusion: For youth over 15 years of age charged with first degree murder and for crimes arising from the same event or constituting murder. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2204(2)(b).
- Once an Adult, Always an Adult: “Any case in which a minor is charged with acts constituting a crime when he/she has been previously charged with a felony as an adult.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 34, § 2204(2)(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 Puerto Rico. If you would like to collaborate with NJDC to fundraise for, plan, or engage in an assessment in this jurisdiction, please contact us.