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  • Michigan Center for Youth Justice

Strengthening Michigan’s Juvenile Defense System

By: Jason Smith, Executive Director at Michigan Center for Youth Justice


Quality legal representation is a fundamental right, particularly in the juvenile justice system, where the futures of young people hang in the balance. Regrettably, the indigent defense system in Michigan is letting justice-involved youth down, especially those from low-income families who can't afford a lawyer. The current system poses serious challenges that negatively impact the constitutional rights and welfare of young individuals.


In Michigan, the juvenile defense system operates on a county-by-county basis, leading to disparities in legal representation quality depending on the county. This arrangement highlights the need for greater oversight and enforcement at the state level to guarantee that county-based juvenile defense delivery systems provide constitutionally mandated effective trial-level or post-disposition services. The absence of oversight means that young people don't receive equal and fair access to legal representation.


Moreover, insufficient state funding for juvenile defense contributes to a cycle of under-resourced and undertrained attorneys at the local level, compromising constitutional rights and chances of success for young people. Alarmingly, very few juvenile court cases are appealed, obstructing the path to just and equitable outcomes.


The juvenile defense system in Michigan depends on court-appointed attorneys to represent the best interests of the youth. However, the system mandates that young people and their families bear the costs for constitutionally required defense, creating obstacles to representation and potentially discouraging the appointment of counsel. This setup leads to inadequate access to counsel, which can result in the premature termination of representation or the emergence of conflicts of interest for attorneys.


To address the deep, longstanding issues related to juvenile defense in Michigan, one of the key recommendations made by the Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force is to expand the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission (MIDC) to include the development, oversight, and compliance of youth defense standards in local county defense systems.


  • Align and Develop Youth Representation Standards:

The MIDC should align or develop new standards for representing youth in the juvenile justice system, including specialized training for juvenile defenders on trauma, youth development, and cultural considerations.


  • Include Commissioners Knowledgeable About Indigent Youth Defense:

The task force recommends adding commissioners with expertise in indigent youth defense to the MIDC to address the unique needs of these young people.


  • Ensure Representation Throughout Proceedings:

Youth should have legal representation at every stage of the proceedings, from the first stage of consent or formal proceedings until the case is terminated.


  • Restrict Waiver of Counsel in Delinquency Cases:

Restrictions should be implemented to require consultation with an attorney before a young person can waive their right to counsel in delinquency cases.


  • Expand the State Appellate Defender Office:

The task force advises expanding the State Appellate Defender Office to include appellate services for juveniles, ensuring access to legal resources throughout the entire process.


  • Promote Training for Prosecutors:

The creation and funding of a juvenile justice resource attorney position at the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council (PACC) is encouraged to provide relevant training and resources for prosecutors.


MCYJ anticipates new legislation this year to enhance juvenile defense, among other juvenile justice reform initiatives recommended by the task force. Strengthening Michigan's juvenile defense system is critical to safeguard the constitutional rights and welfare of young people. These reforms will help ensure that young people receive the necessary legal assistance and support throughout the juvenile justice process.


To gain further insight, we recommend reading Overdue for Justice: An Assessment of Access to and Quality of Juvenile Defense Counsel in Michigan, from the Gault Center.

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