Panel studying Delaware’s juvenile justice system

The exterior of Family Court in Dover. Delaware’s juvenile arrest rate is almost 25 percent higher that the national average, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

The exterior of Family Court in Dover. Delaware’s juvenile arrest rate is almost 25 percent higher that the national average, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — At the end of 2016, there should be a strategic plan for the reformation of Delaware’s juvenile justice system.

That’s the hope of Lisa Minutola and an advisory committee working with $147,983 in federal grant money.

Their task is to study how children are handled and represented in Family Court — and in legal-related proceedings.

Ms. Minutola, co-chair of the Smart on Juvenile Justice Access Committee, believes the future of kids in the justice system are crucially impacted by how their issues are revolved.

Access to legal counsel for juveniles in the system is not guaranteed and Ms. Minutola said a “child at the very least should have the right to consult with an attorney.”

Also, she said in a news release, “Access to competent counsel is crucial to due process. Children in the court system are still in the formative stages in their lives and a lack of access to counsel could have both immediate and lasting impacts on their futures.”

In a project narrative, collateral consequences of juvenile adjudications included the possibility of “denial of employment, suspension or expulsion from school, denial of admission to universities, loss of scholarships, eviction from public housing, restitution obligations, revocation of firearm privileges, loss of driving privileges, inability to enlist in the military, sex offender registration, placement on the Child Protection Registry, and immigration issues,” were listed, among other concerns.

In a nutshell, the narrative opined that “[a] strategic committee needs to be implemented to further educational programming and training for juvenile defenders, provide services and trainings to all law schools and civil legal aid organizations, and ensure the constitutional rights of all juveniles are upheld in each part of the judicial process.”

Six work groups

The project includes six work groups covering topics of decreasing waiver of counsel, increase representation at detention hearings, establish post-disposition legal services addressing collateral consequence, reduce disproportionate minority confinement, institutionalize specialized juvenile defense practice and training program, and examine state policies for transferring youth to adult court in light of the latest research on adolescent development.

In announcing the grant, the committee also cited the three-year high period of juveniles admitted to detention facilities in Delaware from 2012-14, over 76 percent of arrested juveniles being represented by public defenders or conflict counsel, and disproportionate ratio where an African-American child is seven times more likely to be remanded to a juvenile detention center.

Delaware’s juvenile arrest rate is almost 25 percent higher that the national average, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Delaware Criminal Justice Council received the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2015, and the committee includes stakeholders from the state, private and nonprofit sectors.

Ms. Minutola, chief of Legal Services at the Office of Defense Services, is heading the committee along with Dawn Williams, director of Training and Development at the Office of Defense Services.

Members come from the Office of Defense Services, Family Court, Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families, the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Governor’s office, Justice of the Peace courts, policy makers, mental health professionals, community advocates, state-level decision-makers, schools, state and local law enforcement, youth and family-serving organizations, and justice involved youth and their families, the project narrative said.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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