|House approves juvenile counsel bill|
|Wednesday, 28 March 2012 10:17|
By Robert Swift for The Times-Tribune.com
HARRISBURG - House lawmakers approved legislation Tuesday to put Pennsylvania at the forefront of states that protect children's rights to legal counsel in juvenile court.
The unanimous House vote signals an end-game for a two-year effort to require attorneys representing a juvenile be present at delinquency hearings and end a practice that allowed juveniles to completely waive the right to counsel.
Minutes later, the Senate sent a bill to Gov. Tom Corbett requiring judges to publicly explain their sentencing decisions regarding juvenile offenders. This bill will create an open juvenile case disposition record so that it will be easier to determine if sentences being handed down are disproportionate to the offense.
Both measures are sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., and address issues raised by the juvenile justice scandal at the Luzerne County Courthouse. Two former county judges, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan, are serving federal prison terms for their roles in improperly sentencing juveniles to a for-profit juvenile detention facility.
The House amended the Senate-approved mandatory juvenile counsel bill to have it conform with a state Supreme Court rule that took effect March 1, requiring juveniles under 14 have legal representation at all delinquency hearings. This rule allows juveniles 14 and over to waive their right in limited circumstances and only if the court is satisfied the waiver is knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily made.
The Senate will have to approve the juvenile counsel bill one more time so it agrees with the House amendment. This vote is expected soon.
The Supreme Court rule allows very few exceptions to the mandatory counsel requirement for juveniles over 14 and requires counsel for juveniles of all ages for detention, transfer, disposition and probation hearings, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit public interest law firm.
"I think it protects kids in Pennsylvania probably better than any other state in the country on this issue," he added.
But Mr. Schwartz said even with a court rule, it's still important to get a law on the books.
"Both bills improve the rule of law in juvenile court," said Mr. Schwartz. "Lawyers help promote accountability. It's always important that judges explain why they are doing what they are doing."