Access Denied: A National Snapshot of States’ Failure to Protect Children’s Right to Counsel

Access Denied: A National Snapshot of States’ Failure to Protect Children’s Right to Counsel (the Snapshot) reveals that nearly every state falls short of its constitutional obligation to provide effective lawyers for youth.

Based on statutory analysis and interviews with juvenile defenders in every state , the Snapshot exposes gaps in procedural protections for children — gaps that perpetuate the over-criminalization of youth, racial and economic disparities, and the fracturing of families and communities.

The Snapshot explores five fundamental barriers to access to counsel for children: Eligibility procedures that prevent appointment of a publicly funded attorney; fees charged to children for what should be a free public defender; appointment that happens too late in the process for children to receive strong representation; permissive waiver of counsel; and the stripping of young people’s right to an attorney after sentencing.

Released on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision In re Gault, the Snapshot proposes achievable solutions to ensure access to justice for young people.

Access Denied Key Findings:

  1. Children in the United States Are Not Guaranteed Lawyers: Only 11 states provide every child accused of an offense with a lawyer, regardless of financial status.
  2. Children Do Not Get Attorneys Until It Is Too Late: No state guarantees lawyers for every child during interrogation, and only one state requires it under limited circumstances.
  3. Children Must Pay for Their Constitutional Right to Counsel: Thirty-six states allow children to be charged fees for a “free” lawyer.
  4. Children’s Rights Are Not Safeguarded by the States: Forty-three states allow children to waive their right to a lawyer without first consulting with a lawyer.
  5. Children’s Access to Counsel Ends Too Early: Only 11 states provide for meaningful access to a lawyer after sentencing, while every state keeps children under its authority during this time.



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