The right to counsel in juvenile court

Law reform to deliver legal services and reduce justice by geography


  • The National Juvenile Court Data Archive at the National Center for Juvenile Justice (Pittsburgh, PA) provided the data used in the study. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, supported the construction of the data files. I recieved exceptional cooperation and assistance in assembling and organizing the data files from Dr. Howard Snyder, NCJJ Director, Dr. Anne Stahl, and Mr. Terry Finnegan, NCJJ Computer Programmer. I am very grateful to the following colleagues who generaously provdied constructive critiques of an earlier draft of this article: Donna M. Bishop, Eugene Borgida, Elizabeth H. Boyle, George Burrus, Julia Feld, Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, Joachim Savelsberg, Anne Stahl, Christopher Uggen, and Mike Vuolo.

Direct correspondence to Barry C. Feld, 340 Mondale Hall, 229—19th Avenue South, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (e-mail:, or Shelly Schaefer, Department of Sociology, 909 Social Sciences Tower, 267 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN (e-mail:


Research Summary

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.

Policy Implications

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.