The Ohio Supreme Court has proposed a change to the rules of procedure in juvenile courts. It would require a child to consult with an attorney prior to waiving his or her right to counsel. The proposal has been years in the making, the effort led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Juvenile Justice Coalition and the Ohio Public Defender. With the change nearing implementation, the debate about its worthiness has intensified. The justices and state lawmakers would do well to hold firm. The change is more modest than critics suggest. Most important, it protects something fundamental, ensuring that a youth makes an informed decision.
In 2005, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges identified key principles of a sound juvenile court. One states that youths charged in juvenile court must have “qualified and adequately compensated legal representation.” The council stressed that juvenile court judges should be most reluctant to allow a youth to waive the right to counsel. It added that when a judge does accept the waiver it should be “after the youth has consulted with an attorney about the decision and continues to desire to waive the right.”
The safeguard is plain. As essential a role as judges and parents play in a system significantly different than adult court, an attorney can help a youth in weighing fully the choices and the consequences of a decision.
Other states have taken this path, to one degree or another, including Iowa and North Carolina. Advocates note that Texas views juveniles as indigent, mandating legal representation. Franklin County has established a consultation process.
The opposition in Ohio is formidable, from the county commissioners association, juvenile court judges and the Ohio Judicial Conference. They warn about the system becoming too adversarial, or too much like an adult court, losing its unique qualities of flexibility and responsiveness. They worry about complications, delays and costs.
Juvenile courts already have a process for assessing a waiver request, an open discussion among the youth, parents and judge. No doubt, the dynamic would be altered by requiring consultation with an attorney. In implementing the new rule, the courts must be alert to shortcomings and ready to make adjustments.
What should be emphasized are the essential principle and practicality at work. A decision about medical treatment often involves family members, a doctor and a second opinion. The stakes are high. You want to make an informed choice. Choosing whether to waive legal counsel can be crucial for a juvenile. A judge may be wise but hardly flawless, parents most caring yet unaware of the complete ramifications. A consultation with an attorney need not upend or harm the process. Done well, it will serve the interests of the youth.