Forty years ago this week in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that all children accused of crimes had the right to due process and a lawyer, and if they could not afford an attorney, the government must provide one.
For Grace Bauer, that promise rang hollow six years ago when she visited her then 14-year-old son, Corey Bauer, in a maximum security prison and found boot prints on his rib cage, broken teeth and scars from being dragged across concrete. With no experience to guide her son through the courts, and no lawyer, Bauer said her son's life devolved into a nightmare.
Juvenile advocates say the Bauers are not alone. In some jurisdictions around the nation, as many as 80 percent to 90 percent of youth offenders "waive" their right to counsel, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center, even though "most children do not understand the tragic consequences" of doing so, Jacqueline Baillargeon from the Open Society Institute told ABC News.
And many of the lawyers representing children lack the skills, resources or time required to meet the special needs of their clients in criminal proceedings, said Robert Listenbee, chief of the juvenile division of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
Corey's nightmare began when he was caught shoplifting a pack of cigarettes from a grocery store at age 11.
"He was going through a hard time" after his grandmother died, according to his mother.
He did not fight the charge and was placed on unsupervised probation. Then, she said, he violated his probation by breaking school rules, such as smoking, skipping classes and inadvertently carrying scissors through a metal detector. These troubles landed him in juvenile court in Louisiana, where they live, and his mother said they were not told they had a right to a lawyer.
Actually, she told ABC News, the police and court personnel convinced her that they would help Corey "get back on track" and provide counseling services that she could not afford, and that a defense lawyer would just "slow things down."
"I felt like these folks were doing everything they could to help Corey, that they are professionals, and I did something wrong in parenting," Bauer said.
But after spending time in juvenile detention, she said, Corey seemed worse, not better. One night, Corey and his friends were arrested for breaking into a car and attempting to steal the radio, Bauer said.
Corey was carrying illicit drugs, including the prescription drug Xanax, which he swallowed to avoid getting caught with them, she said. While in a drug-induced stupor, he was interrogated for hours without an attorney, and according to Bauer, he "told the cops everything."
In court, Corey's probation officer, who Bauer believed was "looking out for his best interest," recommended that Corey be put in "state secure care," in a so-called "lite program," Bauer said. She said she was told that Corey would receive mental health and substance abuse treatment and education to put him back on track. With no attorney or advocate, Corey accepted a plea bargain and agreed to enter this program, said Bauer.
Bauer never imagined that at 14 years old, without ever having seen a lawyer, Corey would be sent to a maximum security prison.