Thousands of minors in Knoxville, Tenn., who wind up in the juvenile court system for minor infractions are missing out on legal counsel -- and are being sent to young people's version of jail.
The infractions that send them to court — including truancy, running away, curfew violations and tobacco possession — are technically not crimes, thus, they "have no constitutional right to the appointment of defense counsel before pleading guilty," according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.
One teen, referred to in court documents only as A.G., was 15 in 2008 when she was shackled, taken out of the Knox County Juvenile Court and thrown into detention for truancy.
She pleaded guilty sans the proper representation. Her family couldn't afford to hire a lawyer, who would have been able to prove constant bullying was her reason for skipping school, possibly preventing her incarceration.
“A.G.’s incarceration immediately following her guilty plea for truancy, a status offense, was illegal under state and federal law,” said Dean Rivkin, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who later represented A.G.
For states to get federal delinquency-prevention grants, courts "must abide by federal law prohibiting the jailing of status offenders as immediate post-trial punishment," according to Public Integrity.
Further research by Public Integrity shows a "vigorous pattern of locking up status offenders in Knox County."
Across the country there is a disturbing shortage of timely legal representation to ensure kids’ rights are respected when they go to court for crimes and status offenses, Patricia Puritz, executive director of the nonprofit National Juvenile Defender Center, told Public Integrity.