PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A Pennsylvania county routinely denies juveniles the right to counsel in hearings that often end with them being placed in custody, a juvenile law group said Tuesday.
A petition filed Tuesday asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to nullify decisions in hundreds of Luzerne County cases since 2005.
More than half of about 1,100 juvenile defendants who appeared in Luzerne County courtrooms in 2005 and 2006 were not represented by lawyers, the Juvenile Law Center said, citing state data. And nearly 60 percent of those children were removed from their homes, the group said.
Some were sent to youth facilities for relatively minor offenses, such as possessing drug paraphernalia or harassment, according to the petition, which also asks the state Supreme Court to remedy the situation.
“When more than half of all youth appear in court without legal representation and are routinely taken from their homes and placed in residential treatment for minor offenses, something is seriously wrong,” Marsha Levick, the law center’s legal director, said Tuesday. “I think we all should be outraged.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago that juveniles have the right to counsel.
In 2005, the state Supreme Court adopted rules that said only the child � not a parent � can waive the right to counsel. The rules also order the judge to determine through questioning that the juvenile fully understands the decision, Levick said.
First-time offender Jessica Van Reeth, then 16, appeared in court in January 2007 and admitted that she had possessed a cigarette lighter and a pipe, constituting a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charge, the petition states.
Van Reeth said Tuesday night she was charged after agreeing to hold a friend’s makeup bag � which contained the pipe � at school. She said she was told that she would get probation and did not need a lawyer.
“My court hearing didn’t even last 90 seconds,” Van Reeth said. “I was immediately shackled by the hands and feet. I was not told where I was going.”
She spent three months at a juvenile treatment center, then had to scramble to make up her schoolwork by June, she said.
According to the petition, Van Reeth was never advised of her right to a lawyer and never questioned on the record about her understanding of the procedure or the potential consequences of her decision to admit the offense.
Van Reeth, now 18 and a senior at Crestwood High School in Mountain Top, said she is considering a career in law. She wants to have her record expunged and has agreed to have her name used publicly in the petition.
President Judge Mark Ciavarella, who oversees the county’s juvenile courts and presided over her case, did not immediately return a message left Tuesday afternoon at his office, and a home number for him could not be found.
Six years ago, the state Superior Court warned Ciavarella � in reversing a similar juvenile case � that judges have a duty to inform children of their right to counsel, the petition said.
“An admission, the juvenile equivalent of a guilty plea, is a critical stage at which a respondent must be afforded the right to counsel,” the Superior Court wrote, according to the law group’s petition.
“When a respondent appears without counsel at any stage of a delinquency proceeding, the court has both a constitutional and a statutory duty to inform the child of his right to counsel,” the court wrote.