Examining the Type of Legal Representation and Its Influence on Disaggregated Dispositions in Juvenile Court

Date01 October 2021
Published date01 October 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Examining the Type of Legal
Representation and Its
Influence on Disaggregated
Dispositions in Juvenile Court
Caitlin M. Brady
and Jennifer H. Peck
While prior studies of juvenile court outcomes have examined the impact of legal representation on
out-of-home placement versus community sanctions, previous research has not fully explored the
variation within sanctions that youth receive. The current study examines the influence of type of
legal representation (public defender or private attorney) when predicting juvenile adjudications and
dispositions. Using a sample of delinquent referrals from a Northeast state between 2009 and 2014,
results showed that youth do receive different outcomes (e.g., probation, drug and alcohol treat-
ment, accountability-oriented dispositions, etc.) based on the type of legal representation. The
findings have important implications for juvenile court processing related to how courtroom actors
impact case outcomes.
juvenile justice, courts, rehabilitation, punishment, legal representation
Within the juvenile justice system, the juvenile court is tasked with determining a youth’s degree of
responsibility for a delinquent act and the assigned sanction if adjudicated delinquent. Specifically,
the courtroom workgroup (i.e., probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges) is guided
by the goals of the juvenile justice system to provide accountability and rehabilitation to youth.
Outcome decisions, received most formally from disposition hearings in the court process, impart
sanctions that are both treatment-oriented (e.g., rehabilitative) and punishment-oriented (e.g., hold
youth accountable). Improving the lives of juveniles while also holding them responsible for delin-
quent behavior set the foundation for the creation of a separate judicial system from adults (Martin,
1992). Most notably, the juvenile court operates under the parens patriae doctrine, which directs
courts actors to consider the best interests of the child. Over time, the juvenile justice system has
shifted its focus to punishment and back to rehabilitation throughout a continuous cycle (Bernard &
Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, USA
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer H. Peck, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, 12805 Pegasus Drive, Building 80, Suite 311,
Orlando, FL 32816, USA.
Email: jennifer.peck@ucf.edu
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2021, Vol. 19(4) 359-383
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040211027649
Kurlychek, 2010), which subsequently influences the courtroom actors and the decisions regarding
the best interests of youth.
Given that accountability is one of the objectives of the juvenile justice system and youth may
receive punishment-oriented outcomes, youth are afforded certain due process rights. Youth within
the juvenile court have a right to legal representation (i.e., defense lawyer). Specifically, the defense
lawyer assists in explaining the court process to the youth at the adjudication and disposition stages,
while also serving as an advocate. However, the type of legal representation (i.e., public defender or
private attorney) has been shown to impact court outcomes (Burru ss & Kempf-Leonard, 2002;
Burruss et al., 2020; Clarke & Koch, 1980; Gue vara et al., 2004, 2008; Peck & Beaudry-C yr,
2016). When examining the impact of type of counsel on court processing, most prior scholarship
has measured dispositional outcomes as a binary indicator of community sanctions (i.e., probation)
compared to out-of-home (i.e., residential) placement (Armstrong & Kim, 2011; Feld & Schaefer,
2010; Mears et al., 2011; Peck & Beaudry-Cyr, 2016). Moreover, fewer studies have examined the
impact of legal representation, particularly the type of representation on accountability and
rehabilitation-oriented outcomes at the disposition stage (Cochran & Mears, 2015; Mears et al.,
2011). A more complete understanding of the variety of dispositional outcomes above and beyond
community versus residential sanctions will show how the juvenile court holds youth accountable,
while also providing rehabilitation.
Based on these limitations, the objectives of the current study are to: 1) investigate the effect that
type of legal counsel has on the likelihood of youth being adjudicated delinquent, 2) examine the
effect that type of legal counsel has on a nine-category dispositional outcome variable for adjudi-
cated youth, and 3) determine if type of counsel results in more treatment-oriented or accountability-
oriented placement types for adjudicated youth. Highlighting the effect that representation by a
public defender or private attorney has on dispositional outcomes, (which have not been formally
operationalized based on rehabilitation-oriented or punishment-oriented intentions), the process of
sanctioning and the type of legal counsel can be explored.
Literature Review
The Juvenile Court and Role of Legal Representation
The juvenile justice system was established based on the overall notion that youth should be held
accountable for delinquent acts, yet also receive rehabilitative services to decrease the likelihood of
future offending (Feld, 1988b, 1989; Mears et al., 2011). Therefore, the juvenile court and each
decision-maker have a responsibility to uphold the foundational ideas of the juvenile justice system.
Punishment-oriented sanctions are given to deter youth from recidivating, while treatment-oriented
sanctions (i.e., rehabilitative efforts) are made to provide pro-social changes in a juvenile’s life and
reduce recidivism (Feld, 1988b). Employing the parens patriae doctrine, juvenile courts have a
more rehabilitative approach and are identified as being different from the adult criminal justice
system by focusing on treating youth as co mpared to a punishment and deterrence philosophy
(Burruss & Kempf-Leonard, 2002; Nagin, 1998). In the late 1960s, several foundational Supreme
Court cases re-directed the philosophy of the juvenile court.
With the Supreme Court decision of In re Gault (1967), it was established that juvenile courts up
until that time were not giving procedural safeguards to juveniles throughout the court process. The
In re Gault (1967) decision included such safeguards as: the right to counsel, the opportunity for
cross-examining witnesses, the right to a hearing, and the right against self-incrimination. Generally,
it was recognized that if the juvenile court was going to punish juvenile offenders, youth had to have
some basic rights to protect them against the power of the state such as legal representation that
could act in the “best interests” of the youth (Bernard & Kurlychek, 2010). Prior to In re Gault
360 Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 19(4)

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