Panel Calls For Minors to Access Legal Counsel at All Stages of Investigations

States across the country are failing to adequately protect the rights of children, particularly during interviewing and interrogation stages of an investigation by failing to access legal counsel for them early in the process, according to a panel this week, which noted the United States and Somalia are the only two countries left that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The treatise’s guiding principle is that the best interests of the child should be a paramount consideration in any judicial situation, according to Jodie Blackstock, the director for Criminal and European Union Justice Policy at a London-based organization called JUSTICE.

One thing that should be considered “in the best interests of the child” is giving them the right to have access to a lawyer at all stages of the judicial process, not just at the trial level, according to a number of speakers at a summit held by the Juvenile Justice Initiative.

The European Court of Human Rights upheld this idea in 2008, when it ruled in a case called Salduz v. Turkey. The court held that people – not just juveniles – detained at police stations have the right to access a lawyer. This will become binding on European nations by 2017.

Bernardine Dohrn
Bernardine Dohrn

European countries, including France and the Netherlands, have begun to incorporate the Salduz ruling into their domestic policies. In 2010, France overturned a policy that allowed for suspects to be held for up to two days without access to a lawyer or being informed of their right to remain silent. Lawyers raced to police stations to provide counsel to the arrested.

“The convention on child rights tells us that there should be prompt access to legal or other appropriate assistance,” Blackstock said.

Illinois could begin implementing this policy for juveniles, if the legislature passes a bill that would make any statements made by a minor without proper access to legal counsel during the interrogation stage inadmissible in court.

The bill is sponsored by state Sens. Heather A. Steans, Patricia Van Pelt and Michael Noland.

“I felt like it was a no-brainer, quite naturally,” Van Pelt said Thursday. “We all want our kids [to have] the right to have an attorney.”

A high percentage of youth take plea bargains after interrogations, according to Deborah LaBelle, an attorney and the director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative for the ACLU of Michigan.

“They take pleas, because the interrogation and what they say there undermines the ability [of] lawyers to do anything about their situation,” LaBelle said. “Kids say things in order to get home.”

Bernardine Dohrn, the founder and former director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, said police coercion can sometimes amount to “You can go to your brother’s birthday party, or we’ll get you McDonald’s, as soon as you sign this.”

“We should move mountains to demand the right to lawyers for youth at the police station when they’re held in custody,” Dohrn said. “Let’s take courage and make Illinois a global model of human rights, children’s rights, and fairness.”

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