Schwartzkopf Bill Would Guarantee Juveniles Legal Representation

DOVER – All juveniles would be guaranteed legal representation in court under legislation House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf filed Thursday.

House Bill 382 would guarantee that all children facing criminal charges and allegations of delinquency have the right to an attorney. This would codify the Office of Defense Services’ current practice of representing every juvenile that requests representation.

Currently, there is no legal requirement that juveniles receive representation in court. Before ODS is bound to represent a person, the office must determine whether they meet indigency criteria.

“We’re fortunate that the Office of Defense Services provides representation for all youth who need it, but we can’t rely on current practice as a guarantee for the future,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. “Navigating the judicial system is difficult enough for an adult, so you can only imagine how daunting it is to a juvenile. We need to guarantee that all youth will have legal representation in court to ensure fairness and the best possible outcome for all parties involved.”

“This legislation takes the small but important step of codifying an existing practice so going forward there is no question that minors being charged with a crime in our state have the same rights to public defenders as adults,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, the lead sponsor of HB 382 in the Senate.

In fiscal 2015, attorneys with the Office of Defense Services represented children in 3,499 cases statewide. However, there were a total of 4,999 juvenile delinquency filings during Fiscal Year 2015, according to the Family Court’s 2015 Annual Report Statistical Information, potentially leaving 1,500 children unrepresented.

“Children have their whole lives ahead of them, but arrests and adjudications can have long-lasting and devastating effects on a child's chance to succeed as an adult,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services with the Office of Defense Services. “This legislation ensures that every child in Delaware has legal representation during all crucial stages of the judicial process and gives kids the best chance to have a successful future.”

HB 382 has been assigned to the House Administration Committee.