Access to Counsel

Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission
for Calendar Years 2007 and 2008

February 10, 2009


In the fall of 2007, the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law and the National Juvenile Defender Center as part of Models for Change released an assessment of access to counsel and quality of representation in Illinois' delinquency proceedings. The assessment found that the overall quality of the representation of children in Illinois falls well short of national standards including the following individual deficiencies. Across the state attorneys for children are typically appointed at the child's first appearance before a judge robbing the child/attorney team of communication prior to the detention hearing, virtually assuring that all youth are detained. Over 70 percent of cases in juvenile court are resolved by pleas rather than by trial. During the plea process, youth are not adequately informed by the judge of their rights, e.g. to go to trail, to be represented by counsel, to remain silent, and to put on a defense. Juvenile defenders in a majority of Illinois' counties represent youth according to the "best interest" rather than the "expressed interest" model which substitutes the attorney's judgment for the client and can constrain counsel to the expectations of the court thus limiting advocacy. By way of example, the assessment found that few attorneys for children in Illinois (outside major metropolitan areas) file written pre-trial motions, including those for discovery. When asked why, some of the attorneys said that they trusted the police and prosecutors not to "trump-up charges." Appeals in juvenile cases are filed in a few number of cases, and virtually all defenders view their duty of representation as ceasing as soon as the dispositional hearing has concluded. Finally, juvenile defense attorneys, especially those in urban areas, are overwhelmed with large caseloads and high volume court calls. Consequently, these attorneys are unable to provide the kind of representation necessary to insure that juvenile courts render reasoned and just decisions.

IJJC Action and Recommendations


  • In SFY 2007 the Commission funded three Access to Counsel grants that totaled $87,500 to provide an investigator to interview youth in detention prior to the detention hearing. This was the third and final year of a competitive grant.
  • The IJJC held a special committee meeting to gather information and recommendations from practitioners in Illinois about current practice and policy related to providing access to counsel in the juvenile justice system. The authors/researchers of the assessment described above presented their findings. Representatives of two counties reported on the utility of the Commission's earlier efforts to enhance defender services by providing an investigator to interview youth in detention prior to the detention hearing through Access to Counsel grants. Finally, representatives from First Defense Legal Aid provided insight into a unique 24 hour approach to providing access to counsel at the time of the initial police interrogation. This meeting and others that followed has led the Commission to formulate parameters to fund a pilot program to provide access to counsel to youth at the stage of arrest, 24 hours per day. Currently the Commission is finalizing the approach, which will include targeting a community with a significant minority population.


  • Enact legislation that would prevent a youth from waiving their right to counsel or from appearing at any hearing (even the first appearance) without the presence of an attorney.
  • Enact legislation that would allow a youth to invoke the right to counsel, even if this right had been previously waived.
  • The General Assembly should direct funding to the newly created Juvenile Defender Resource Center and Juvenile Justice Resource Center.