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House, Senate open hearings on juvenile legal aid

Rick Brewer
WCMU file

Michigan House and Senate committees held a hearing Tuesday on proposed improvements to Michigan’s juvenile justice system. The topic was ensuring youths charged with delinquency get adequate legal representation.

The bills would set training standards for attorneys who represent juveniles — and make it harder for juveniles to independently waive their right to an attorney.

Senator Sue Shink (D-Northfield Township) is one of the bill sponsors. She said it can be too easy for young people to make decisions affecting their legal status without fully grasping the consequences.

“Kids in the justice system are often scared, overwhelmed and don’t know how to make these choices on their own and this avoids inadvertent coercion,” she said.

The House Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary, and Public Safety Committee also heard from legal experts who said cases in the juvenile system are rarely appealed, which is evidence that young people’s rights are not being vigorously defended.

“The near complete lack of appeals in delinquencies deprives some of the most vulnerable people in the justice system of appellate review and error correction — a fundamental function of what we do in appeals,” said Jonathan Sacks, director of the State Appellate Defender Office.

Representative Sarah Lightner (R-Springport) sponsored bills to set standards for training attorneys in the specialty of representing defendants in the juvenile justice system when they can’t afford a lawyer.

“By establishing appropriate guidelines and providing proper training, we can ensure young individuals receive fair treatment, access to necessary resources and achieve opportunities for rehabilitation,” she said.

The bills are part of a larger overhaul recommended by a state juvenile justice task force that was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2021. The bills call for ensuring the same rights to legal counsel in the juvenile system as for people charged as adults.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network.