Dilemma Of Duties: The Conflicted Role Of Juvenile Defenders

Author: Anne M. Corbin
Publisher: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018. 240p.
Reviewer: Tim Curry | January 2019

In 1967, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right to counsel for youth charged with offenses in a delinquency proceeding. That landmark decision, In re Gault, upheld the idea that attorneys for young people should not only defend their clients’ legal interests, but should act as their voice in the proceedings. In essence, youth were to cease being spectators in what happened to them and start being participants. Since Gault, case law and ethical rules have continually reinforced the concept that juvenile defense attorneys are to represent the expressed interests of their clients – that is, to counsel their clients about the case and their legal options, and advocate for what their clients want.

As Anne Corbin details in Dilemma of Duties: The Conflicted Role of Juvenile Defenders, what seems settled in law can often unfold quite differently in practice. Building on earlier work by experts in juvenile defense, Corbin embarks on a study of how juvenile defenders in two North Carolina counties view their role and their obligations to their young clients. In a juvenile court system that presumes the “best interests” of young people, defense attorneys often face internal and external conflict over their role as expressed interest advocates. Corbin draws on social science research about role conflict and examines how defense attorneys who are bombarded by conflicting expectations can struggle to navigate a minefield of potential challenges.

While never losing sight of the legal and structural obligations juvenile defenders have, Corbin attempts to understand and give voice to the conceptual and real-world struggles that can make difficult fulfilling the juvenile defender role. She examines a variety of conflicting pressures and expectations defense attorneys face from judges, prosecutors, probation officers, parents, their clients, and even their own internal moral compasses. What Corbin finds through her study are attorneys who adhere to stated-interest advocacy, those who believe best-interest advocacy is appropriate, and others who see their role as more complicated than that standard dichotomy.

Though centered in North Carolina, the struggles Corbin highlights are emblematic of juvenile defense across the country. Because Corbin’s findings draw from qualitative interviews, the exhaustive review of multifaceted response from anonymous defense attorneys can sometimes make the narrative hard to follow. In that way, however, Dilemma of Duties does an excellent job at articulating the realities of what makes defending youth such a demanding job, and why it can be such a head-spinner of a profession. Defenders struggling with their own place in the system will likely see themselves in these pages, but the book is an important read for any juvenile justice system stakeholder who has ever felt that attorneys in juvenile court should somehow act more like “one of the team.” Understanding each stakeholder’s individual role in an effective juvenile justice system is critical and Corbin sheds light on the often overlooked complexity of what it means to defend children.

Tim Curry is the Legal Director at the National Juvenile Defender Center

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