When Colorado state lawmakers convene in January of next year, one piece of legislation slated for debate has created somewhat of a stir amongst the criminal justice community. The bill, titled “Defense Counsel for Juvenile Offenders” would require, among other things, that youth offenders be required to have legal counsel at detention hearings.
Proponents of the bill offer compelling reasons for their support. In many cases, juvenile offenders are unaware of the potential long-term consequences that could await them depending on how they choose to plead. Some defendants wishing for a speedier end to the legal proceedings may choose to plead guilty without being fully informed of how such a plea may negatively affect them throughout the course of their lives. For example, unflattering juvenile records can make it significantly harder to find a job, rent an apartment, or apply to college later in life.
The case made by opponents of the bill centers upon the cost such requirements would level on the system as well as the fact that legal counsel may represent an unfair intrusion into family affairs. According to Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, judges and prosecutors are already required to inform and advise juveniles and their families about their cases and there are rules in place to constrain the ability of judges to continue trying a juvenile without an attorney.
If the proposed legislation is passed, families who want attorneys but would otherwise be unable to afford them would automatically qualify for state public defenders. While some see this as the right thing to do, others worry about the financial burden public defenders would incur due to the fact that only the juvenile’s assets would be considered as compared to the current system which considers parents’ assets and incomes. This means that it is possible public defenders could end up defending juveniles whose parents are more than capable of paying for private counsel.
As Colorado awaits state lawmakers to take up the bill next year, defenders and opponents of the proposed legislation continue to argue over the bill’s merits and defects. Do juveniles really require access to legal counsel? Can parents handle that responsibility on their own? Is this a matter best left up to the state, or should local government be in the driver’s seat?
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