Fair Trials calls for Policing Bill to protect arrested children's right to a lawyer

Article by Fair Trials

Fair Trials is calling for an amendment to the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Bill that would protect the rights of children who have been arrested in the District of Columbia (DC).

If a young person is arrested in DC, they have the same right to a lawyer as an adult.  However, often they do not invoke this right. The process for informing children of their rights does not take into account their age despite the fact that they are less likely to understand what they are being told.  Even if young people do invoke their right to a lawyer during interrogation, DC does not have a formal system for providing a lawyer until the initial hearing stage. By then, it is too late children need to have a lawyer as soon as they are arrested during a time when they are vulnerable to police coercion.

This is an issue across the US, where 90% of young people waive their right to counsel. The negative effect of the lack of mandatory juvenile representation has a discriminatory impact on Black children in the District, where Black children make up 95% of youth who are subject to arrest. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are also less likely to assert their right to counsel.

Amendment to the Policing Bill

The amendment to the Policing Bill, which is supported by Fair Trials, DC Justice Lab, Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative and other community organizations, would make any statement made to law enforcement officers by any person under eighteen years of age inadmissible in any court of the District of Columbia for any purpose, including impeachment, unless:

  • the child is advised of their rights by law enforcement in a manner consistent with their cognitive ability;
  • the child actually confers with an attorney in relation to their right to silence and to a lawyer; and
  • the child knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waives their rights in the presence of counsel.

Rebecca Shaeffer, Legal Director of Fair Trials Americas, gave oral testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Council on October 15. Read her full submission to the Council.

Access to counsel for all

Fair Trials is campaigning for access to counsel in police custody for all arrested people, regardless of age. Around the world, police station access to counsel is understood to be a key safeguard against police abuse, arbitrary detention, insufficient notification of rights, unlawful arrest, lack of access to medical care and sanitation, coercive interrogation, and excessive prosecutions. Access to lawyers is provided in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and in all European Union member states. In each of these jurisdictions police are able to conduct effective investigations alongside defense counsel in custody.

Read our briefing Station House Counsel: Shifting the Balance of Power between Citizen and State or watch our webinar to learn more about how access to counsel in the US could play a pivotal role in decarceration, decriminalization, and oversight of police.

Webinar: Station House Counsel - Shifting the Balance of Power between Citizen and State

Photo Credit: Steven Depolo