Department of Justice Sponsors National Symposium on Indigent Defense
Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the keynote address at the National Symposium on Indigent Defense.
Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the keynote address at the National Symposium on Indigent Defense.
National Symposium on Indigent Defense: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2000-2010

Approximately 500 public defenders, prosecutors, judges, legislators, government officials, and representatives from leading advocacy organizations gathered on February 18 and 19, 2010, for the National Symposium on Indigent Defense in Washington, DC. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice with the support of OJJDP and the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), the symposium encompassed 5 plenary sessions and more than 40 workshops related to indigent adult and juvenile defense.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the keynote address, following opening remarks by Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General for OJP. The symposium's moderator was Charles Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard.

More than 40 years have passed since the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Gideon v. Wainwright and In re Gault which established the right to counsel for adults and juveniles in criminal and delinquency cases, respectively. Despite the decades that have elapsed since the Court's decisions, these cases "have yet to be fully translated into reality," said Attorney General Holder. "In too many counties and communities, too many people—including juveniles—may never have a lawyer. This is simply unacceptable. . . . Indigent defense must be the concern of every person who works on behalf of the public good."

Attorney General Holder cited the urgent need to expand partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels, both in and outside government to address the crisis in indigent and juvenile defense. To further that goal, Holder recently launched the Access to Justice Initiative, headed by Laurence Tribe, a national authority on constitutional law. Tribe will assume the role of primary liaison to the federal judiciary and work with federal, state, and tribal judiciaries to improve indigent adult and juvenile defense, enhance the delivery of legal services to the poor, and identify and promote effective alternatives to incarceration.

Symposium Includes Focus on Juvenile Justice Issues

Kristin H. Henning, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, led a plenary session entitled "Innovations in Juvenile Defense Reform." The following national experts participated in the panel discussion: the Honorable Sue Bell Cobb, Chief Justice, Alabama Supreme Court; the Honorable Robert C. Scott, U.S. Representative (Virginia); Robert Listenbee, Jr., Chief, Juvenile Unit, the Defender Association of Philadelphia; and the Honorable Carlos J. Martinez, public defender, Miami, FL. Among the topics discussed were:

  • The ways in which juveniles are denied access to counsel in delinquency cases. The panelists expressed concern that stakeholders often explicitly or implicitly encourage youth to waive the right to counsel without providing information about the benefits of counsel.
  • The appointment of counsel either too late, or the termination of counsel too early, in juvenile cases. As a result, many youth have no representation at critical stages such as the detention hearing or postdisposition hearing.
  • The important role juvenile court judges can play in holding defenders accountable for comprehensive advocacy of the child's stated legal interest in a juvenile case.
  • The need for attorney practice standards, court rules, and statutes that spell out the ethical obligations and duties of counsel for youth accused of delinquency.
  • The ways in which federal legislation can be used to raise the quality of legal practice. Panelists noted provisions in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act and the Youth PROMISE Act that are designed to improve access to counsel and increase technical assistance and training for juvenile defenders.
  • The critical role chief defenders in public defender offices can play in recognizing, promoting, and supporting juvenile justice as a specialized area of law.
  • The need for statewide juvenile defense resource centers in states with no defender office. These centers provide specialized training, support, and resources to the private juvenile defense bar.
  • The importance of a vigorous appellate practice in juvenile court.
  • The use of valuable resources such as the National Juvenile Defender Center and its nine regional centers for legal advocacy, research, and other support.

OJP and OJJDP senior officials and others served as moderators for numerous workshop discussions on strategies to enhance juvenile defense. Workshops addressed topics such as:

  • Systemic advocacy and juvenile defense: Bringing about meaningful change.
  • The privatization of juvenile punishment: Has it gone too far?
  • The MacArthur Foundation Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network.
  • Juvenile defense as a specialty: The role and obligations of counsel.
  • Post-disposition advocacy: Making a critical difference in outcomes for youth.
  • Youth waiver into the adult criminal justice system: Review of research and defender responses.
  • Status offenders: The role of legal counsel.
  • Representation, education, and modeling: Multidisciplinary law school clinics.
  • The 10 core principles for providing quality delinquency representation.
  • Juveniles' competence to exercise legal rights and confessions.

The national symposium was covered by major media outlets and juvenile justice publications, including C–SPAN, National Public Radio, and Youth Today.


For more information on the National Symposium on Indigent Defense, click here.