Seeking Justice for South Jersey Juveniles

Law Professor Sandra Simkins, director and cofounder of the Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic, center, with students who handled juvenile cases: Briana Ramos RLAW’20, at left, and Carmen Day RLAW’19.

More than 700 juveniles charged with crimes in South Jersey over the past 12 years have been represented in court at no charge by students and faculty from the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Camden. “Doing service for the community is really important to us,” said Sandra Simkins, a distinguished clinical professor and director of the clinic who cofounded it in 2007.

Each semester, eight law students receive certification from the New Jersey Supreme Court to represent between 20 and 30 juveniles—most are between the ages of 13 and 17—on a variety of criminal charges. The representation, which takes place under Simkins’ supervision, is often extended to teens whose family incomes are slightly above the minimum to qualify for a public defender but can’t afford to pay for an attorney. “We fill that gap,” Simkins said. Other clients handled by the Children’s Justice Clinic include those who pose a conflict for public defenders or are referred from a variety of sources. The clinic handles many cases in Camden County, but also has represented juveniles in Burlington, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, and will take on any case in South Jersey. Cases range from minor offenses to more serious charges such as aggravated assault, weapons, and drug charges.

Recent graduate Carmen Day participated in the Children’s Justice Clinic in her final year, handling two cases from beginning to end—corresponding with opposing counsel, drafting motions, picking up discovery, and representing the juveniles in court. “It gave me hands-on, real-life lawyering experience,” she said.

Representation for teens by the clinic goes beyond simply handling legal matters. Law students follow up with clients after they have received their disposition (or sentence) and until they are fully released from the charges. Students also work to reveal and correct challenges, such as educational difficulties or a lack of housing. “We try to address all issues that could impact the client’s success,” Simkins said.

Simkins and other faculty also have been advocates for changes in the New Jersey juvenile justice system, most notably pushing for ending punitive solitary confinement of incarcerated juveniles in 2015. “I’m always looking at each individual case through a systemic lens,” Simkins said. “Is there a bigger issue? Is there a way the New Jersey juvenile justice system can improve?”

Posted in: 2019 Fall, Features

Comments are closed.