Op-Ed: Raising the bar for juvenile justice in Alabama

Anniston Municipal Courtroom

Anniston's municipal courtroom, in a 2013 file photo.

Although the stated goal of the juvenile justice system is to provide accountability and rehabilitation to children, the current reality for many children in Alabama falls far short of this goal. Children in the juvenile system need zealous representation to ensure their rights are protected and to force the system to live up to its mission.

As a criminal defense attorney and a guardian ad litem who regularly represents children, I have come to understand that the role of a defense attorney in juvenile proceedings is two-fold: first, protect the rights of the juvenile; and second, competently and zealously advocate on the juvenile's behalf. In my capacities as juvenile defender and guardian ad litem, I’ve advocated against the over-criminalization of youth for minor infractions like when one of my clients, a pre-teen boy, made a penis joke during class in reference to a rap song. If I fail to do my job as a zealous advocate, my clients can lose their voices, their rights and often-times their hope for a future all over something as trivial as a dirty joke. Strong juvenile defenders prevent the justice system from becoming a pipeline to prison and protect clients from careless prosecution, unfair outcomes (especially for youth of color) and exposure to extremely harsh sentences. The National Juvenile Defense Council notes: “Children who are treated fairly in the legal system are more likely to trust their attorneys and other court personnel, actively engage in the court process, and find value—and legitimacy—in their case outcomes.”

Nesha Q.S. Wright is an attorney in Huntsville.