This September, I took a leave from my job as an assistant state public defender in the Office of the Minnesota State Public Defender to volunteer with IBJ in China. A juvenile defense lawyer with over 24 years practice experience in the US, I was particularly interested in assisting IBJ’s Juvenile Justice Project, a program that aims to improve the quality of indigent defense for children in criminal proceedings, while also promot-ing improved implementation of laws designed to protect the rights of accused juveniles. Through a partnership with the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) in the United States, I learned about this exciting opportunity at IBJ. ISLP began as a small group of retired lawyers from private firms who wanted to find opportunities to use their legal skills as volunteers. The organization continues to grow and now has volunteers in various countries around the world. ISLP agreed to sponsor my trip and helped make the arrangements for me to live in Beijing and volunteer with IBJ over the next three months.
Over the past month, I have learned a great deal about the needs of China’s juvenile justice system. Although by law juveniles are entitled to legal aid, many go through the criminal process without ever seeing a lawyer. Those who do receive appointment of counsel frequently receive substandard legal representation. Often, defense lawyers are appointed to juvenile cases just a few days before trial, preventing them from visiting their clients, asserting their legal rights or presenting any meaningful defense at trial. As a result, the vast majority of juvenile suspects are detained for many months before trial; almost all are convicted and frequently receive jail sentences, even for petty crimes.
Many of the Chinese lawyers I have met are dedicated passionately to the reform of the juvenile justice system, yet lack the skills necessary to bring about meaningful change. I have learned of the need for China’s lawyers to gain practical trial skills and how great a need there is for the international community to help provide that training. China’s juvenile defenders are interested in working on skills such as how to interview juvenile clients, learning about adolescent development and achieving alternatives to incarceration for their juvenile clients. Over the next three months, I am working with IBJ and their Chinese partners to develop a comprehensive juvenile defense manual, a practical guide that will instruct lawyers on best practices for defending accused juveniles.