The Youth Defense Project

In 2020, the Gault Center (formerly the National Juvenile Defender Center) released a report entitled Overdue for Justice: An Assessment of Access to and quality of Juvenile Defense Counsel in Michigan. This report was scathing in its criticism of our state’s youth defense system. Attorneys and courts alike were called out for the inadequate representation youth received when petitioned into court. Excessive waiver of counsel, failure to properly advise youth of their rights, almost non-existent motion practice, routine failure to demand trial by jury, woeful underfunding of defense counsel. The litany of areas in which representation of youth falls short is troubling.

One of the areas which Overdue for Justice touched on was appeals. The Gault Center found a total of 45 Court of Appeals opinions, only two published, and zero Supreme Court opinions in delinquency cases over a five-year period. Those 45 appeals came from a limited number of counties, with 85% of counties having no Court of Appeals opinions or orders. A separate review of Court of Appeals filing data shows fewer than 20 delinquency appeals per year. For context, there were more than 7,100 pleas and 130 trials in delinquency cases in 2019 alone. This is an appeal rate of less than 0.3%. 

Particularly startling about so few appeals is the broad swath of orders for which youth have a right to appellate review: any order of disposition (with no limitation on whether the adjudication was by plea or trial), any order removing the youth from their parent’s care and custody (i.e., an order placing a youth in detention or a residential facility), an order of the family division waiving its jurisdiction so that a youth may be tried as an adult in circuit court, and any final order. Youth have a substantially greater opportunity to appeal orders than adults in the criminal justice system, yet such appeals are shockingly rare.

  Some have questioned the importance or relevance of this low number of delinquency appeals. Understanding the purpose of appeals helps explain their importance. Appeals serve three primary purposes: error correction, law making, and uniformity. Unfortunately, without meaningful appeals, youth in the justice system do not have the benefits of these protections, especially error correction. 

With the release of Overdue for Justice, SADO/MAACS saw an opportunity to advocate for and implement reform to Michigan’s youth appellate defense system. To that end, MAACS applied for and received a substantial federal grant and established the Youth Defense Project, with ambitious goals toward creating a MAACS-type system for delinquency appeals while also pushing trial-level reforms to better youth defense from root to branch.

After I started as Project Director in May, we quickly assembled a Volunteer Advisory Board with stakeholders throughout the legal community, including representatives from the Michigan Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, several trial courts throughout the state, youth defense attorneys, academics, and other incredible, reform-minded individuals. The Board is an integral part of the Project, providing support and guidance and expanding the range of experiences and insights necessary to create the greatest change to youth defense in the state. The first Board meeting was in late June, and we had consensus support on various early proposals.

One of the first tasks we have been working on is creating new court rules mandating courts to advise youth of their appellate rights. There currently are no such requirements, despite advisement of appellate rights being necessary in adult criminal cases and other juvenile court cases, such as child protective proceedings. Drafts of these proposed court rules have been circulated to the Board and submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court for consideration. We anticipate working closely with the Supreme Court on many more court rules amendments going forward.

Shortly after the Project started, we began to discuss something a bit more abstract: the words we use to discuss youth in the justice system. For more than a century, youth charged with crimes have been called “juveniles.” This term is so prevalent that it adorns even the courts to which children are brought. The word “juvenile” is inseparably linked to youth who have allegedly committed crimes. However, we believe that this term is dehumanizing and contrary to the stated goal of rehabilitation in juvenile court. It needlessly labels youth as criminals. We are actively advocating to move away from referring to youth in the justice system as “juveniles” in discussions with stakeholders, youth defense attorneys, and other members of the youth justice system. We have planted the seed for amending the Michigan Court Rules to eliminate use of that term.

We have also been working with legislators and other stakeholder groups on amendments to the Appellate Defender Act to integrate youth appellate defense into SADO and MAACS. We are in the early stages of assembling a roster of experienced youth defense attorneys who are willing and able to provide zealous representation to youth on appeals and appropriate post-disposition matters.

Youth defense is ripe for reform right now, particularly at the appellate level. We have an incredible opportunity to spearhead that reform. Over the next two and a half years, we hope to turn Michigan’s youth defense system into one of the most effective in the nation and overhaul youth appeals to the benefit of the children in the justice system.

by Joshua Pease
Youth Defense Project Director

Before starting as the Youth Defense Project Director in May 2022, Josh spent nearly a decade in private practice where he primarily focused on juvenile delinquencies and child welfare cases. He is active with several State Bar of Michigan committees, particularly Children’s Law Section, where he serves as a council member and the legislative committee chair.