Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia

I would still be on lockdown at Oak Hill if it wasn't for [the Juvenile Services Program] JSP. I did not understand what was going on in my case, and JSP took the time to explain my placement and my options. JSP helped me decide to work with the residential program the judge was sending me to. . . . I am home with my mom now, and the law clerk I worked with out at Oak Hill is helping me get back into school.

-- "Emmanuel," former PDS client

The Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia provides defense services to the city's indigent residents. In addition to a rigorous in-house training program for its attorneys, PDS also has devised several low-cost strategies to improve the quality of representation provided to its clients by concentrating on the desire of students and less experienced attorneys to learn about and contribute to the legal defense process and on the willingness of more experienced attorneys to teach and work with them.

Juvenile Services Program

The Juvenile Services Program (JSP) in the PDS was created in 1982 pursuant to authorization by the District of Columbia Council. The Council was responding to a task force report on the reorganization of the Department of Human Services expressing concern that incarcerated youth need legal guidance and access to counsel.

JSP is staffed by an attorney who recruits, trains, and supervises law clerks throughout the year. JSP maintains an office inside the Oak Hill Youth Center, the District of Columbia's juvenile corrections facility. Under the close supervision of the staff attorney, law clerks work to ensure that the due process rights of incarcerated youth are protected at disciplinary hearings by giving youth the chance to give their version of the events in question, providing representation, and conducting investigations. Law clerks also explain the disciplinary process to the residents -- an important function, because no one else at the facility is available to explain the procedures.

In addition to helping youth understand the internal workings of the facility, law clerks also play an important role in facilitating communication and understanding among youth and their families, attorneys, and social workers. JSP law clerks help youth maintain contact with their attorneys and social workers and give information to the attorneys and caseworkers about each child's progress within the facility. The law clerks assist youth with questions regarding their legal status, draft pleadings for court reviews, and assist with legal research on issues relating to postcommitment proceedings.

JSP works with hundreds of incarcerated youth each year. In the summer months, JSP employs as many as 10 full-time law clerks in the program. It deals with numerous youth who have fallen through the gaps in the system and wound up in secure confinement either inappropriately or illegally. JSP has become an integral part of the institution and is relied upon by the children, staff, and administrators.

Criminal Law Internship Program

For more than 20 years, PDS has leveraged its resources into a thriving corps of young and enthusiastic investigators through its Criminal Law Internship Program. Recognized as one of the top 10 internships in the country, the Criminal Law Internship Program trains college, graduate, and law students in methods of conducting investigations of crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, and obtaining important documents. As members of the defense team, interns also are expected to prepare detailed reports and statements in a format appropriate for use in court, take photographs of crime scenes, prepare maps and charts for use during trial, serve subpoenas, and assist their assigned attorneys with logistical problems that arise during trial. In exchange, interns receive academic credit; take part in tours of criminal justice agencies in Washington; and meet with prosecutors, vice squad officers, detectives, and judges.

Attorney Mentoring

Recognizing that strong supervision is critical to effective representation, PDS operates a mentoring program that matches attorneys who have less than 3 years' experience with senior attorneys, thus ensuring that less experienced attorneys always have access to their colleagues' expertise. Mentors are responsible for routinely meeting with attorneys, discussing pending cases in detail, observing and critiquing hearings and trials, and reviewing case files. Mentors supervise only one attorney at a time, and the trial chief and assistant trial chiefs provide additional supervision. Mentoring also helps establish camaraderie in the office and provides a measure of reassurance for those who are less experienced.

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Innovative Approaches to Juvenile Indigent Defense Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  December 1998