Dealing with the Parents of a Juvenile Client

by Jamison Koehler on December 21, 2011


My client’s mother is annoyed with me.   She disagrees with her 16-year-old son’s decision to take his case to trial, and she is convinced I am the one who talked him into it.  She’s partially right; in this particular case, I did recommend trial.  But it does not matter if the child is 16 years old or 11 years old, it is the juvenile himself who makes the decision – just as if he were an adult — whether or not to accept a plea offer.  My role as his lawyer is to make sure he understands the pros and cons of this decision, not to substitute my own judgment for his.

There are also a couple of other things that the client’s mother may not fully understand. First, she may not realize that, unlike an adult case, there are very few risks to taking a juvenile case to trial.  There is no “trial tax” in juvenile court, at least not in D.C.  In other words, with the judge more concerned about the child’s care and rehabilitation than any notion of retribution or punishment, a juvenile will not face a harsher sentence by exercising his constitutional right to trial.

As I often tell clients, the judge can find you guilty of a serious criminal offense and still dismiss the case if he truly believes that you do not pose a danger to either yourself or the community.  That is why it is so important for juveniles to fully comply with all pre-trial conditions.

Second, the client’s mother may not truly appreciate the nature of the defense lawyer’s role in a juvenile case.  I too am a parent, and I understand parents may not trust a child with a decision of this import, particularly when the child has just exercised the bad judgment that got him arrested in the first place. It may also be difficult to have some stranger come in and work with your child in making a decision over which you have no control.  At the same time, she needs to understand that she is not my client; her son is.  And while the child’s best interests will often coincide with the family’s best interests, this is not always the case.  It is up to the child to determine what his interests are.

One of the things I have always liked about criminal defense is the clarity in the defense lawyer’s role.  It is no different in a juvenile case.  If we can beat a case outright or mitigate the consequences of an adjudication, assuming that is consistent with the juvenile’s expressed wishes, that is precisely what we will attempt to do.  There is no moral ambiguity in any of this.  We leave it to the parents to worry about the child’s long-term moral development.  And we leave it to others – the judge, the prosecutor, and the probation officer – to concern themselves about such amorphous concepts as retribution or justice.

2 Comments on “Dealing with the Parents of a Juvenile Client

  1. Good post, Jamison. As you know, I’m in our juvenile division right now, most of the cases are handled by the juvenile Public defender. A really good group of people, and great lawyers. I think it’s a tougher job than you make it out to be, though, I’ve talked to several of them about the job they do. Very often their client will want something that is contrary to their best interests. And while it’s your job to advocate for their wishes, I know it’s hard to argue to a judge for a position you know may harm them. Specifically, I’m thinking of those times where in-patient or residential treatment is needed, but the kid just wants to go home. I guess in those instances you have to hope the PO, the prosecutor, and the judge do what’s best, not what your client wants. Still, I admire you for taking those cases, from where I sit they can be tough. And I know they’re even tougher from where you sit.

  2. Mr. Confidential:

    We criminal defense attorneys often need to remind ourselves that we cannot substitute our own judgement for what is in the client’s best interests for the client’s. And if that is a problem in working with adults, it is a particular challenge when representing juveniles, especially since there is the natural tendency to take on a parental role. It is an even greater problem when you are working within a juvenile system — such as the one in D.C. — that for the most part works. As a result, not only do we often have to explain our proper role to clients and to the parents of clients; occasionally we also need to remind ourselves.

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