New York Legal Aid Society

I pray every night I'll go home that day, that some day I may be able to look back on the ordeals in my life and tell other juveniles that I'm defending as a attorney . . . that their future can still be bright.

-- Excerpt from an incarcerated Legal Aid Society client's diary

The Legal Aid Society, the primary defender agency in New York City, has two divisions that represent young people: the Juvenile Rights Division (JRD), which represents children younger than 16 years charged as juvenile delinquents in Family Court, and the Criminal Defense Division (CDD), which represents juvenile offenders (13- to 15-year-olds charged with specific serious felonies) and youth 16 years and older that are adults under New York law. Divisions in the Manhattan and Bronx offices recently developed specialized teams to deal with the particular needs of young clients.

Delinquency Unit, Bronx Office

In July 1997, the Bronx office of JRD developed a Delinquency Unit. Although JRD generally handles both delinquency and child protection cases, child protection cases so dominate the caseload in the Bronx office that delinquency cases were in danger of being marginalized. The formation of a Delinquency Unit addressed this concern and, as a result, expertise, efficiency, and innovation within the office have risen dramatically. The unit comprises five staff attorneys, a supervising attorney, a social worker, and a paralegal. The unit also shares an investigator with the child protection attorneys.

In addition to increased proficiency in juvenile issues as a whole, the unit has developed expertise in specific areas of juvenile law. Attorneys see similar cases with greater frequency and have developed strategies to handle cases more efficiently. Attorneys also have the opportunity to become involved in areas of personal interest. For example, one attorney focuses on children and families with HIV and AIDS. Attorneys maintain their own research files, which are available to all members of the unit, thus avoiding the need to "reinvent the wheel" with each new case. Attorneys discuss trial strategies with other staff, and a motions bank is being developed for the unit. In addition to increased expertise and efficiency, morale has improved among the attorneys, as they focus on one area of the law and do not have to constantly shift between child protection cases and delinquency cases. The social worker attempts to meet clients at intake, and dispositional planning begins at arraignment. Early intervention by a social worker has proven to be one of the greatest benefits of the new unit, resulting in avoidance of placement in many cases or securing more appropriate placements in others. With the social worker acting as a witness, the dispositional plan is offered to the court.

The Delinquency Unit has begun to identify global issues that affect clients, such as remands outside of statutory guidelines, lengthy adjournments between fact-finding dates, and inadequate remedial education and psychiatric services in court-ordered placements. The Delinquency Unit is working with the Special Litigation Unit and Appeals Unit to address these issues in the appropriate courts.

The Delinquency Unit's long-term goals are to restructure the intake process, devote more resources and time to the initial arraignment, identify more community-based services and dispositional alternatives, and take on an increased number of writs and interim appeals. The unit plans to work with Youth Force, an advocacy group made up of individuals who have gone through the juvenile and criminal justice systems, to facilitate communications with detained juveniles, work with families of clients, and prepare clients for probation interviews. The Delinquency Unit is also considering assigning cases according to police precincts, which would allow attorneys to become familiar with particular schools, neighborhoods, and police officers.

Juvenile Offender Team, Manhattan Office

The Juvenile Offender (JO) Team in the Manhattan office of CDD represents young people, ages 13 to 15, charged in adult criminal court with serious felony offenses. The cases involving those young people, known as JO's under New York's Juvenile Offender Law, comprise a small percentage of the entire CDD caseload yet require a great deal of time and attention. According to one attorney, "You need more patience and time to explain the consequences of important decisions, such as whether to take a plea, when you're dealing with younger clients." The JO Team was created to ensure that attorneys who handle these cases are experienced in the issues involved in representing such young clients and are familiar with the special laws and services that are available to them. The team draws on the expertise of lawyers in JRD, thereby giving the JO lawyers familiarity with the workings of family court, where many of the JO clients had or have cases, or where they might go if their JO case is removed (waived down) to juvenile court.

The team comprises the director, three CDD attorneys, a social worker, an investigator, and an attorney from JRD who acts as a liaison with family court. The team handles the majority of JO cases and has developed concentrated and specialized knowledge in this field. The team has made a significant impact on the lives of many young people, and expansion of the program into other borough offices of CDD is being considered.

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