Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Few situations, if any, in our justice system grant one judge authority without review over matters concerning personal liberty. Close inspection of the juvenile justice system reveals, however, that, in reality, the outcomes of nearly all juvenile delinquency cases are determined by one individual alone, sometimes in the absence of counsel, and usually entirely outside of public view. While there is widespread recognition that appellate practice on behalf of juveniles is lacking, there is little quantitative data available to define the scope of the problem. Aside from ensuring accuracy, the lack of appeals hampers the ability of appellate courts to define the contours of criminal law and procedure in its application to juveniles, one of its core appellate functions. The dearth of appellate practice also intersects with the struggles of the juvenile justice system to overcome disparate results for minority children, including confinement. This article provides original empirical data identifying the rate of appeals in fifteen states. The data from the study grounds the discussion about juvenile appeals and informs efforts toward improvements. The article also examines the ways in which this limited appellate practice restricts law development by analyzing appellate case law in juvenile justice over the past ten years.
Public recognition of the institutional role of appellate courts has increased, due in part to cases and studies examining post-conviction determinations of actual innocence — including innocent children. Those findings have resonated with the public and raised important policy and structural questions about the justice system. This renewed attention creates an opportunity to improve and highlight the role of the appellate function in the juvenile justice system as well. Appellate courts in the criminal justice system protect against error and define the rights of the accused, increasing accuracy, public accountability, and transparency. The article examines the repercussions in an area of law where the appellate role and transparency to the public is overwhelmingly absent and calls for states to take a more active role in effectively realizing the right to appeal among juveniles.