The U.S. Supreme Court in In re Gault granted delinquents the right to counsel in juvenile courts. Decades after Gault, efforts to provide adequate defense representation in juvenile courts have failed in most states. Moreover, juvenile justice administration varies with structural context and produces justice-by-geography. In 1995, Minnesota enacted juvenile law reforms, which include mandatory appointment of counsel. This pre- and post-reform legal impact study compares how juvenile courts processed youths before and after the statutory changes. We assess how legal changes affected the delivery of defense services and how implementation varied with urban, suburban, and rural context.
We report inconsistent judicial compliance with the mandate to appoint counsel. Despite unambiguous legislative intent, rates of representation improved for only one category of offenders. However, we find a positive reduction in justice by geography, especially in rural courts. Given judicial resistance to procedural reforms, states must find additional strategies to provide counsel in juvenile courts.