Report: Utah children face barriers to accessing defense attorneys in juvenile court system

A new report by Voices for Utah Children and the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law released today outlines startling concerns about youth access to defense attorneys in Utah’s juvenile courts system.

And Justice For All Kids notes several barriers youth face in access to full legal representation when appearing in juvenile court a number of negative outcomes associated with insufficient legal defense counsel in juvenile courts.

The report shares several key findings, including:

  • Young people who appear in juvenile court in rural counties don’t have the same access to full legal representation as youth in urban counties;
  • Young people face practical and procedural barriers to exercising their right to be represented by a defense attorney at court hearings, even at detention hearings when their liberty is at stake; and
  • Utah juvenile court judges overwhelmingly support a system that provides an attorney for every youth appearing in their courtrooms, from initial proceedings until termination of jurisdiction.

“It’s concerning, to say the least,” said Cambre Roberts, a 2L who was involved with the project. “It’s really important that juveniles have the same protections that adults have. They need to have representation and they need to have someone that’s advocating for them.”

There are also several recommendations made in the report, with the intent of strengthening Utah’s juvenile defense system. One key recommendation is to pass legislation currently proposed by Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), “SB32, Indigent Defense Act Amendments,” during the 2019 session.

Several S.J. Quinney College of Law students, supported by staff from Voices for Utah Children, observed nearly 200 court proceedings in almost all Utah counties, and conducted interviews with twenty of Utah’s 30 sitting juvenile court judges, to inform And Justice For All Kids.

“One of the cool things about the juvenile justice system is the fact that it is very much focused on rehabilitation rather than punitiveness,” Roberts said. “I feel like there’s more willingness to say, ‘No we don’t want to punish these kids, we want to help them. We want to recognize that something’s happening here and we have an opportunity right now to change the path that they’re on.’ So that’s why I wanted to be involved in this project. It’s important to me.”

 For a free print copy, contact Voices for Utah Children at (801) 364-1182.