An all too common tragedy occurs in juvenile justice when young people accused of crimes are pressured into signing away their right to an attorney or making statements without an attorney present. They can wind up effectively criminalizing themselves in situations where an even mildly competent attorney would otherwise intervene to protect them.

The juveniles who exercise bad judgment and wind up in police custody aren’t usually prone to making the best judgments when it comes to waiving their rights during police interrogations. A simple misstatement can launch a redeemable kid into the pipeline of adult imprisonment.

Too much is at stake for juveniles to lack an extra layer of protection before giving up their rights. A bill by Missouri state Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, seeks to remedy that by limiting the circumstances under which juveniles can waive their right to an attorney.

“Most people don’t realize that this is happening to our juveniles,” Burnett told the House Children and Families Committee. House Bill 42 would not allow a juvenile offender to waive his or her right to counsel unless it happens in open court with a judge’s approval.

The Legislature’s GOP majority should have no qualms about supporting this bill because it’s about protecting constitutional rights and minimizing the burdens placed on government by an overpopulated, underfunded juvenile justice system. The goal must never be to imprison as many juveniles as possible; it should be to find the quickest and most efficient route to rehabilitation and reintroduction of offenders to law-abiding society.

According to the Post-Dispatch’s Jack Suntrup, a 2013 report by the National Juvenile Defender Center found only a few Missouri counties willing to “rigorously defend the right to counsel for juveniles.” In most counties, “youth are discouraged from and systematically denied counsel.”

Who wins under such scenarios? The state winds up incarcerating kids and launching them on a path toward more criminality as adults. Taxpayers wind up shouldering the burden of their imprisonment when far less expensive and more effective means of rehabilitation are available.

Burnett’s bill would require court certification that a juvenile has “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily” waived the right to legal counsel. A judge would presumably question the child to make sure he or she fully understands the implications. The bill would require a judge’s order before rights could be waived.

This would be a major change from current procedures in which police interrogators behind closed doors can coerce or trick juveniles into waiving the right to counsel, after which they are at the mercy of their far more savvy adult handlers.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson can do his part to help the cause of juvenile justice by addressing the nearly $30 million funding gap that is preventing young offenders from receiving the help they need from public defenders.

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