From a Lawyer’s View: The Importance of Creativity in the Representation of Juveniles at Disposition

Happy Friday Readers! No Week in Review this week, but please keep reading for our 2nd installment in our new series: “A Lawyer’s View.”

The Importance of Creativity in the Representation of Juveniles at Disposition: Advocating for Alternative Dispositions

Dispositional hearings often feel a bit like the players are on the scene of the Bill Murray movie “Ground Hog Day.” The juvenile court counselor presents his or her recommendations to the court. The attorney has no questions but desires to be heard. The attorney says a few nice things about his or her client. The Court makes findings, and then adopts the recommendations of the court counselor. This scene is repeated regularly every day in delinquency court.

Although much of the time the recommendations of the juvenile court counselor are well-suited to address the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs, it is the duty of the juvenile’s attorney to make recommendations for alternative solutions when appropriate. Often, that necessitates a bit of creativity on the part of the attorney for the juvenile.

N.C.G.S. §7B-2506 provides a comprehensive list of dispositional alternatives available to the court for delinquent juveniles. These dispositional alternatives are affected by the dispositional limits for each class of offense and the delinquency history level of the juvenile. (See N.C.G.S. §7B-2506-2508)

The first step to making creative suggestions to the court regarding the dispositional alternatives is for a juvenile’s attorney to make themselves knowledgeable about the services available in their community. Attorneys who represent juveniles in delinquency cases should also get to know their clients, and the client’s parents in order to determine the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs.

Oftentimes, parents of the juvenile are well-equipped to ensure that the juvenile’s needs are being met. Attorneys should meet with their clients ahead of the scheduled court date and make inquiry of the parents regarding the needs of the juveniles, and what provisions can be made prior to the disposition to show the Court that the parents can meet these rehabilitative and treatment needs. Parents can arrange for therapy, substance abuse treatment, private community service, or any number of other services. Parents can implement in-home punishments such as a curfew, attend school regularly, remain on good behavior, not associate with anyone deemed inappropriate by the parent, or be at any place deemed inappropriate by the parent. These are typical conditions of a juvenile’s probation that do not necessarily require supervision by a juvenile court counselor. The juvenile’s attorney should prepare to inform the court regarding the conditions put in place by the juvenile’s parents, the parents’ plans for implementation, and provide examples of how the parents’ plans are being carried out in the home.

When an appropriate plan can be implemented by a juvenile’s parents, the juvenile’s attorney can ask the court to dismiss the disposition, or to place conditions on the juvenile under the parents’ supervision. Remember not all juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent require the supervision of a juvenile court counselor to address their rehabilitative and treatment needs. Attorneys should not rely on the juvenile court counselor’s court report to determine what those rehabilitative and treatment needs are. Attorneys should be prepared at disposition to advise the court regarding the needs of the juvenile and to make recommendations regarding the best way to address those needs.

Attorneys can get too comfortable with the “groundhog effect,” walking into court on the disposition court date, reading the recommendations of the juvenile court counselor, and not coming prepared to make their own recommendations. Oftentimes, this is because they assume that the judges are also on autopilot and reflexively adopt those recommendations. Judges look to the juvenile court counselor, the assistant district attorney, and the attorney for the juvenile to inform them of the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs and to make suggestions tailored to address these needs. Taking a little time to educate yourself about resources available in the community and to inform yourself about the needs of the client will assist you with becoming more creative in your suggestions to the court, and in achieving a better outcome for your client.

Written by: Honorable Christine Underwood. Judge Underwood presides over district court in Judicial District 22A, which includes Alexander and Iredell counties. She has been on the bench since January 2009. Before that, Judge Underwood was in private practice. She held a contract with the State of North Carolina to represent juveniles in delinquency court. Her other areas of practice included parent representation in Abuse/Neglect/Dependency court, criminal law, and family law. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Appalachian State University in 1994 and received her Juris Doctor from Campbell University’s Normal Adrian Wiggins School of Law in 2004.

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