Waiver of Attorneys in Juvenile Court

In collaboration with Kimberly Larson, J.D., Ph.D., and Thomas Grisso, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, we have received a $510,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, to examine the waiver of counsel in juvenile court.


A valid waiver of the 6th Amendment right to counsel, a foundational due process entitlement, must be knowing, intelligent and voluntary (Thus, not only must a youth understand the meaning of the right, he/she must be able to appreciate its significance and apply it.  Although the majority of states allow juveniles to waive their right to counsel, most have minimal procedures for ensuring validity. Indeed, . the legal community is split regarding whether younger juveniles should be considered per se incapable of waiving their right to counsel, and if so, at what age.  That controversy notwithstanding, jurisdictional variation in the number of youth represented by counsel ranges from 15% to 95% Further,  minorities being less likely to be represented by counsel in some jurisdictions than Whites (Feld, 1993b). 

The Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, “kids-for-cash” scandal emphasized the importance of counsel. Over half of the youth over a five year period waived their right to counsel.  The absence of counsel enabled Judge Mark Ciavarella to ignore other significant rights. The Luzerne County juvenile court proved that strong mandates alone are insufficient to ensure that youth are treated fairly and that the law is followed.  Indeed, Pennsylvania guarantees the right to counsel for all children, at all stages of proceedings (Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act, 2012), but this guarantee has proved fragile. 

Compared to adults, juveniles’ cognitive, psychosocial, and intellectual capacities negatively affect their legal decision-making across multiple legal contexts (e.g., Miranda, Competence to Stand Trial).  We have every reason to believe these developmental factors will similarly affect the decision to waive counsel. If they do, we must begin to examine the causes of these deficits in order to consider potential remedies.

This goal of this study is to examine age-based differences in “knowledge” regarding the role of counsel, presumptions about counsel, and maturity of judgment when making decisions about whether to waive the right to counsel. The results can inform best practices for (1) informing youth and their families during the appointment/waiver of counsel, (2) procedure for maximizing access to counsel; (3) developmentally appropriate procedures for obtaining an informed waiver decision; (4) local/state policies and laws regarding prohibitions, limitations, and/or safeguards of the right to counsel. The study extends theoretical and empirical work on waiver of counsel in several ways that improve ecological validity. First, the proposed study examines knowledge, beliefs, and decisions among parent-youth pairs from the same family, more closely approximating the real-life circumstances under which waiver occurs.  Second, recognizing that youth with adequate knowledge about waiver may fail to apply such knowledge, the study expands beyond basic knowledge assessments to consider the beliefs, expectations, and circumstances in which youth make waiver decisions.

Recruited through several local justice systems in Massachusetts and Virginia, four hundred pairs of parents and post-adjudication youth (200 ages 11-14, 200 ages 15-17) will complete separate semi-structured interviews that include assessments of demographics; intellectual functioning; emotional symptoms, psychosocial maturity, knowledge and beliefs about attorneys; knowledge and beliefs about the justice system process and waiver of counsel decision, including direct and collateral consequences.  Analysis of variance and regression will be used to detect nonindependence, or influence, within parent-youth dyads. This enables both between- and within-dyad variables and two-interaction terms in a logistic regression analysis predicting a dichotomous outcome of waive/not waive attorney, for example.

Products will include final reports on findings, presentations and publications targeted to key practitioner audiences, peer-reviewed publications in academic journals, dissemination opportunities with appropriate electronic media outlets (e.g., Juvenile Justice Information Exchange) and our own websites, NIJ-sponsored publications such as the Research in Brief series, among others.

Parent Perspectives on D.C. Schools

The District of Columbia operates both public schools and charter schools. Indeed, recent data indicate that D.C. is second only to Louisiana in the percent of school-aged children enrolled in charter schools. The specific community for this project is the neighborhoods for whom the elementary and middles school feed into the Roosevelt High School enrollment boundary. These include MacFarland Middle School, Truesdell Education Campus, and West Education Campus. The idea for the project originated in discussion among members of “The Green Line Project.”  Funded by the Capital One Foundation, this project has created and maintained Family-Community Resource Centers in several high schools served by the MetroRail’s Green Line, including Roosevelt High School. Green Line Project partners include the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educations (S.H.A.P.P.E.) represented by Cathy Reilly, former DC public school parent and the 15-year director of the non-profit that was formed in the wake of a February 1998 murder of a local high school student; Mary Filardo (Executive Director) and Nancy Huvendick (D.C. Program Director) of the 21st Century School Fund, an organization of citizens focused on improving urban public school facilities with significant involvement in D.C. Public Schools; Ron Hampton, former president of the Roosevelt High School PTA, DC public school graduate and parent, and staff of the Roosevelt Family Community Resource Center; and Georgetown Community Action Partners (GCAP), Jennifer Woolard Ph.D., Director. Cathy Reilly and Ron Hampton have been actively involved in organizing community members to engage in the DCPS school closings and boundary reorganizations issue. Mary Filardo and Nancy Huvendick host the Green Line Project and work with DCPS to analyze enrollment and public facility data. Jennifer Woolard has worked for several years with SHAPPE, 21st Century Fund, and Roosevelt High School on researching truancy, enrollment patterns, and parent engagement.


1. To document parental perspectives, concerns, and recommendations regarding school policy on boundaries and enrollment patterns for schools currently in the Roosevelt High School feeder pattern.

2. To promote parental perspectives on educational policy changes in DCPS.