Spotlight On: Joshua Pease

Please tell us a little about your background and how you came to work in juvenile law.

I knew in law school that I wanted to practice criminal law. It was fun and interesting in a way that contracts and torts weren’t. Very early in my career, I accidentally ended up doing juvenile court work and fell in love with it. I spent a few years in solo practice and then about 5 years at a firm, and I kept representing youth that whole time. Helping children understand the legal system and defending them from the State became a passion of mine and led me to working on systemic reform through various projects. I am now in my dream job, focused solely on those reforms and improving the system for the youth who are dragged into it.

You are currently the SADO/MAACS Youth Defense Project Director. What does your work entail?

I have a small caseload of appellate cases, primarily where the youth was tried or is being tried as an adult. Most of my time is spent doing public policy type work: drafting court rules, preparing trainings and written resources, working on legislation, providing technical assistance to youth defenders. I am very lucky to have a strong network of colleagues among defense attorneys, judges, referees, court administrators, academics, and even prosecutors, all of whom share my goal of improving the quality of youth defense attorneys throughout the state. I started a series of delinquency trainings last fall, and attorneys who have been practicing for 30+ years are telling me that they’ve never had such regular opportunities for training during their careers.

What issues do kids in the criminal legal system face that adults don’t face?

A system designed to punish adults is not equipped to rehabilitate youth. There is a plethora of research showing how children have different psychological needs than adults and respond differently to stressful situations. A carceral system generally does not adequately protect developing youth from those stressful situations and does not provide them with the support and resources necessary to grow into healthy adults. It also doesn’t account for the research showing that most youth who engage in delinquent behavior eventually grow out of it anyway. Incarcerating youth doesn’t let them grow and become adults.

Tell us about one of your interesting cases. 

I recently argued at the Court of Appeals that it cannot be in the best interests of a youth to be tried as an adult when facing a murder charge. I focused on the plain language of the statute to argue that the juvenile court must find that waiver of jurisdiction is in the best interests of the youth and the best interests of the public before sending the case to adult court, while the prosecutor argued that the statute calls for a balancing of best interests between the public and the youth. It doesn’t appear that the Court had ever addressed this specific issue before despite that language being in the statute for several decades.

As we continue to emerge from the pandemic, what do we need to prioritize in the juvenile justice system?

Decriminalization of youth is critical. We need to stop putting kids in detention for status offenses. We need to stop using juvenile adjudications to increase adult sentences. We need to prioritize mental health services for youth while recognizing that most youth grow out of their delinquent behavior. We need to let kids be kids without policing everything they do.

Has the pandemic had any positive effects on the way we practice law?

I believe that the pandemic has had some positive impact on youth through Zoom court. Being in a courtroom can be an intimidating experience for anyone, particularly a child. Having the ability to sit in their living room or another safe space has gone a long way in helping my young clients feel more comfortable when in a hearing. Zoom has also made it much easier for their parents to participate without taking time away from work. The whole system works better when the child has less stress and fear.

What changes would you make to the juvenile delinquency system?

I would like to see stronger protections for constitutional rights of youth. The US Supreme Court has said that youth are constitutionally different than adults, yet we continue to put them on the same level as adults for matters such as waiving the right to remain silent during an interrogation. We need to do more to stop parents from pressuring their children to give up their right to remain silent or their right to counsel. I would like to see more cases go to trial, and I would like to see more cases get appealed. I hope that I never hear the words “it’s just juvenile court” or “it’s just an adjudication” again in my life. Beyond the boundaries of the juvenile court system, we desperately need major investments in mental health services for youth.

Do you have any advice for other defense attorneys, particularly those that are just starting out?

You’ll often feel like you have no idea what you are doing and that you are making it up as you go along. That’s okay. Remember that the prosecutor and the judge often feel the same way about themselves. If raising a novel issue feels uncomfortable, don’t forget that it will be novel to them as well. It’s a great opportunity to challenge the prosecutor and educate the judge.

Kathy Swedlow
CDRC Manager and Editor