Brady and the Juvenile Courts


The fiftieth anniversary of Brady v. Maryland brought attention to what scholars and jurists have been describing for years as an epidemic of Brady violations. In an effort to curb patterns of non-disclosure, stakeholders have convened working groups, courts and bar associations have issued reports and recommendations, and the Department of Justice has established policies intended to increase Brady compliance and accountability. The focus of the attention paid to Brady compliance in recent years has been aimed almost exclusively at adult criminal prosecutions. There is no question that the Brady right exists in juvenile court. But in spite of the fact that approximately 1.5 million juvenile cases are processed through the courts each year, little or no attention has been given to the issue of whether the epidemic of Brady violations in adult courts is playing out in the juvenile courts as well.

There are strong reasons for believing that Brady violations occur at higher rates in juvenile proceedings and that the juvenile Brady right is under-enforced. A burgeoning innocence movement in juvenile courts suggests the possibility that wrongful convictions of juveniles are widespread. Scholars who have examined the conditions that lead to wrongful convictions of adults find that those conditions are present or exacerbated in juvenile courts Similarly, it appears that the conditions that lead to Brady violations in criminal cases are present or exacerbated in juvenile cases.

It would be a mistake to disregard or underestimate the impact of Brady violations in juvenile courts simply because of the comparatively short sentences juveniles face. The personal cost of Brady violations to wrongfully convicted youth is significant, as is the systemic harm that Brady violations pose to the juvenile system. Incarceration of children has a far more traumatizing effect than adult incarceration, and in an increasingly punitive juvenile system, the lengths of sentences sometimes exceed the permissible sentences in adult court. Like adult convictions, juvenile adjudications carry increasingly harsh collateral consequences. Children who are adjudicated delinquent can be deported, expelled from schools, evicted from public housing, ordered to register as a sex offender for life, disqualified from educational assistance, and barred from future employment opportunities. Brady violations committed against juveniles therefore undermine the very purpose of the juvenile system because they weaken the ability of the juvenile system to rehabilitate—ostensibly the primary goal of the juvenile system.

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