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Montana: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings

NCJ Number
Date Published
October 2003
80 pages
In assessing juvenile defense practices in Montana, this study identified the systemic and institutional obstacles that impede the development of an improved legal service delivery system, noted innovative practices, and developed recommendations for improvement.
Although Montana law requires that juveniles be represented by counsel "following the filing of a petition," this does not take into account that prior to the filing of a petition, a preliminary hearing may be held to discuss the allegations with the juvenile and make a determination regarding whether a petition should be filed. The juvenile, his/her parents, and a probation officer attend these hearings, which may begin with presenting the juvenile the option to wave his/her rights. Although private counsel occasionally attend these hearings, public defenders are not appointed at this stage of case processing. Few juvenile cases go to court, and defense attorneys reported that they rarely took cases to trial; dispositions were generally uncontested and motions rarely made. There was little advocacy or even contact between attorneys and their juvenile clients following case disposition. Many juveniles indicated they were not informed about the relevant issues in their cases, such as disposition options. An additional limitation on defense attorneys' ability to advocate for their juvenile clients was the lack of community-based placement options in the State. Resources and support services for public defender services for juveniles were lacking, along with training for juvenile defense attorneys. Minority juveniles were disproportionately represented in Montana's secure detention and correctional facilities. They were also the juvenile most likely represented by public defenders. Native-American juveniles were particularly disadvantaged because of multiple levels of jurisdiction in their case processing. Although Montana has dedicated and professional attorneys working on behalf of juveniles in the justice system, the system of defense services suffers from a lack of attention, insufficient funding, a disenfranchised clientele, and too few options for the matching of juveniles to constructive case dispositions. Funding should be increased for juvenile defense services and their oversight. Counsel should be provided at the earliest stage of case processing, and additional community-based placement alternatives should be developed, particularly for juveniles with mental health problems. Other recommendations pertain to specialized training for juvenile defense attorneys, the development of minimum standards for representation of juveniles, and a study of better means for addressing the disproportionate number of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. Appended IJA/ABA juvenile justice standards that relate to counsel for private parties, and 98 notes

Date Published: October 1, 2003