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:
- The detention or shelter care hearing;
- The initial appearance;
- Hearings on contested motions;
- Any transfer hearing;
- The pretrial conference;
- The factfinding hearing;
- The disposition hearing; and
- Hearings for the review of a dispositional order.” Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(1).
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.
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.
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:
- Hearings for the review of a dispositional order. Super. Ct. Juv. R. 44(a)(1); D.C. Code § 16-2323(g)(2).
- Probation Revocation hearings. (“Probation revocation proceedings shall be heard without a jury and shall require establishment of the facts alleged by a preponderance of the evidence. As nearly as may be appropriate, probation revocation proceedings shall conform to the procedures established by this subchapter for delinquency and need of supervision cases.”) D.C. Code § 16-2327(c).
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:
- The youngest age at which a youth can be adjudicated delinquent is not specified by any statute;
- Juvenile court has jurisdiction over offenses allegedly committed prior to a youth’s 18th birthday; after age 18, the youth is charged in adult court, D.C. Code § 16-2301(3);
- Juvenile court can retain jurisdiction over youth until age 21, provided that the offense allegedly committed occurred before the youth turned 18. D.C. Code §§ 16-2301(3) and 16-2303.
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:
- Discretionary Judicial Waiver: There are four circumstances that allow the prosecutor to file a motion for transfer to adult criminal court, and the juvenile court will conduct a hearing:
- If the youth was fifteen or older at the time of the conduct, and the youth allegedly committed an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult. D.C. Code § 16-2307(a)(1).
- If the youth is sixteen or older, and they are already under the jurisdiction of an agency or institution as a delinquent child. D.C. Code § 16-2307(a)(2).
- If a youth age eighteen to twenty-one has allegedly committed a delinquent act before their eighteenth birthday. D.C. Code § 16-2307(a)(3).
- If a youth under eighteen is charged with illegal possession of a firearm within 1000 feet of a school, day care center playground, youth center, or another place with children present. D.C. Code § 16-2307(a)(4).
- Statutory Exclusion: The United States Attorney’s Office may prosecute a youth as an adult if the youth is over age 16 and has allegedly committed certain serious statutorily delineated offenses. D.C. Code § 16-2301(3).
- Once an Adult, Always an Adult. D.C. Code § 16-2307(h).
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.