A 15-year-old girl identified as A.G. was sent to a county juvenile detention center in Tennessee for truancy. Like tens of thousands of kids every year, A.G. was in court to answer for a non-criminal infraction that only a minor can commit, reports the Center for Public Integrity. These infractions are called “status offenses,” and they can include skipping school, running away, underage drinking or smoking or violating curfews. Because status offenses aren't technically crimes, indigent minors don't benefit from the constitutional right to the appointment of defense counsel before they plead guilty.
“A.G.'s incarceration immediately following her guilty plea for truancy, a status offense, was illegal under state and federal law,” asserted Dean Rivkin, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who later represented A.G. and oversees the Knoxville campus' Education Law Practicum. A.G.’s lockup is the type of allegation that's put Tennessee at the center of a national debate over whether status offenders should be guaranteed immediate legal counsel once in curt — to ensure minors' basic rights are respected —and under what conditions they can be incarcerated. In February, the nation's top juvenile justice official asked the Justice Department's civil rights division to investigate whether Tennessee status offenders were wrongly deprived of legal counsel. Patricia Puritz of the nonprofit National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C., said that across the U.S. there is a disturbing shortage of timely legal representation to ensure kids' rights are respected when they're pulled into courts for crimes and for status offenses. “Little people, little justice,” Puritz said.