District of Columbia

Juvenile Indigent Defense Delivery System


The District of Columbia provides counsel to indigent youth through its Public Defender Service (PDS), which represents up to 60% of indigent defendants in D.C., including youth. The remaining defendants are represented by private attorneys drawn from a panel list prepared and maintained by the PDS.

At PDS, the juvenile trial division is staffed by incoming attorneys. PDS attorneys generally do not remain in the juvenile division beyond their first year. PDS provides specialized training, not only for their own attorneys, but also for the D.C. juvenile panel attorneys, who are required to attend specialized training before applying for the juvenile panel list and adhere to juvenile defense specific practice standards, outlined in the Attorney Practice Standards for Representing Juveniles Charged with Delinquency or as Persons in Need of Supervision.

Juvenile Court Rules

In addition to statutes and case law, juvenile court proceedings are governed by court rules. The District of Columbia’s juvenile court rules are called the District of Columbia Superior Court Rules Governing Juvenile Procedures.

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 the District of Columbia, “a child alleged to be delinquent or in need of supervision is entitled to counsel at all critical stages of Division proceedings, including the time of admission or denial of allegations in the petition and all subsequent stages.” D.C. Code § 16-2304(a). The rules for juvenile proceedings dictate that an attorney must be appointed at all judicial proceedings. Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(1). Specific proceedings in which youth have a right to counsel include, but are “not limited to:

Youth also have a right to counsel at probation revocation hearings. Super. Ct. Juv. R. 32(i)(3).

A youth must be informed of their right to counsel at the initial hearing. D.C. Code § 16-2308; Super. Ct. Juv. R. 10(a). “In its discretion, the Division may appoint counsel for the child over the objection of the child, his parent, guardian, or other custodian.” D.C. Code § 16-2304(a).

If youth appear before the Court with joint representation, the Court shall advise each respondent “of the right to effective assistance of counsel, including separate representation.” Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(2). Unless no conflict of interest is likely, the Court must take steps to protect each respondent’s right to counsel. Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(2).

Determination of Indigence

The District of Columbia has no presumption of indigence in juvenile court proceedings. “If the child and [their] parent, guardian, or custodian are financially unable to obtain adequate representation, the child shall be entitled to have counsel appointed for [them] in accordance with rules established by the Superior Court.” D.C. Code § 16-2304(a). The Public Defender Service, through its Criminal Justice Act office, conducts financial eligibility interviews of arrestees and defendants. Even though the income of the youth’s custodian is considered in the determination of appointed counsel, “if counsel is not retained for the [youth], or if it does not appear that counsel will be retained, counsel shall be appointed for the [youth].” Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(1).

Waiver of Counsel

The District of Columbia does not have a specific juvenile statute or rule addressing a youth’s waiver of counsel.

Detention Provisions

When and how the court may decide to detain a youth or otherwise place restrictions on the youth’s freedom is defined by statute and court rules. In the District of Columbia, when a youth is taken into custody, a detention hearing for the youth alleged to be delinquent must occur the next day, excluding Sundays. D.C. Code § 16-2312(a)(2). Provisions for the detention of youth are found in D.C. Code §§ 16-2309, 16-2310, 16-2312, and 16-2313 and in Super. Ct. Juv. R. 105, 106, and 107.

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. District of Columbia statutes list two post-disposition proceedings at which youth have a right to counsel.

In D.C., youth have a right to counsel at all critical stages in delinquency proceedings and all subsequent stages. D.C. Code § 16-2304(a). Youth specifically have the 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 the District of Columbia:

Youth in Adult Court

Despite the existence of juvenile courts, many youth are still tried as adults. The District of Columbia has two 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 District of Columbia Assessment was completed in 2018.

 Current through July 2018.