ACLU Launches "Know Your Rights" Campaign in Ohio

Document Date: April 18, 2007

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Former ACLU president and NYU law professor Norman Dorsen, who argued for the plaintiffs in the In Re: Gault case before the Supreme Court in 1967, talks about the case. Launch the video >>

> Stories of Children Who Waived Their Right to Counsel
> Ohio Juvenile Justice Overview
> Why Youth Waive Their Right to Counsel
> A Demographic Profile of Children in the Juvenile Justice System
> Report: “Justice Cut Short: An Assessment to Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings in Ohio” (off-site)

> Ensuring Pre-Trial Access to Counsel: In re Spears
> Fighting for Incarcerated Juveniles’ Access to the Courts: J.P. v. Taft

Ensuring Juveniles’ Access to Counsel in Ohio


In 1967, the In Re: Gault case came before the U.S. Supreme Court. In a landmark victory for juvenile justice, the high court ruled that children under the age of 18 have the right to counsel to assist with any criminal charges against them. The ACLU brought the case on behalf of the plaintiff, Gerald Gault. Forty years after the Gault ruling, the ACLU is still fighting for children’s right to counsel.

Educating Youth About Their Right to a Lawyer
Press Release About the Campaign Launch: 4/18/2007 >>

In April 2007, the national ACLU joined the ACLU of Ohio, the Children’s Law Center and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender to launch a statewide campaign to inform Ohio young people of their rights. Based on analysis of juvenile court cases, the coalition estimates that in several Ohio counties, as many as 90 percent of children charged with criminal wrongdoing are not represented by counsel. Statewide, an estimated two-thirds of juveniles facing unruly or delinquency complaints proceed without an attorney.

A growing number of cases show that young people who are not represented by an attorney are more likely to enter guilty pleas even when they may have viable defenses or may be innocent. Currently, Ohio law allows juveniles to waive their right to legal counsel before they have even met with an attorney to discuss the legal implications of their situation.

Many children have barriers to understanding the serious charges that they may face. Almost 75 percent of incarcerated youth in Ohio need mental health services, and nearly half of those incarcerated at Ohio Department of Youth Services facilities need special educational instruction.

As part of the campaign, the groups are distributing thousands of Know Your Rights cards to school districts and courts across the state. The card is available here in English, and here in Spanish.

In Re: Spears — Working in the Courts to Protect Children’s Right to Counsel

In 2006, the Ohio coalition groups filed a petition calling for the Ohio Supreme Court to adopt a rule making it much more difficult for children charged with a crime to waive counsel. The petition specifically requested that the court require every child to consult with an attorney prior to waiving the right to counsel. The state’s high court agreed to consider this issue in the case of Corey Spears, who was 13 years old when he appeared in juvenile court. Corey waived his right to an attorney but the court failed to ensure that he understood what rights he was giving up.

The In Re: Spears case was heard by the Supreme Court of Ohio in April of 2007 and decided in September of that year. The Court held that Spears’s waiver of counsel was invalid because his rights had not been adequately explained to him. The Court affirmed that the appointment of counsel is mandatory in all cases where a juvenile does not have a parent or guardian available for advice, and allows juveniles to waive counsel only if the decision is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. The Court held that in determining whether a juvenile’s waiver of counsel has met these standards, judges must engage the juvenile in a meaningful dialogue and consider the juvenile’s unique circumstances, including age, intelligence, education level, life experience, and nature of complexity of the charges against the juvenile.

Read more about In Re Spears >>


The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of the nearly 2000 juveniles who are incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities in Ohio. The complaint alleged that the State failed to provide incarcerated juveniles in Ohio with constitutionally adequate access to the courts.

In March of 2007, the court approved a settlement in this case, which guarantees that:
(1) all juveniles will be notified during their orientation about their right of access to the courts and how to request legal assistance;
(2) all juveniles who request such assistance will be assigned an attorney; and
(3) all juveniles who have non-frivolous cases will receive assistance in filing a civil rights lawsuit.

Under the settlement agreement, Ohio must send detailed compliance reports each month to the ACLU. The ACLU filed a contempt action in this case in the fall of 2007 for the State’s ongoing failure to provide adequate access to the courts, in violation of the consent decree.

Read more about J.P. v. Taft >>

Beyond Ohio: The Gault @ 40 Campaign

The ACLU is working with the Gault @ 40 Campaign to devise strategies to improve children’s access to competent counsel. The Gault @ 40 Campaign will conduct a number of activities and events in 2007 — know your rights nights, symposia, new materials and publications, movie screenings, and more. Information on the campaign is online at