Mary Ann Scali - Executive Director, The Gault Center

Mary Ann Scali - Executive Director, The Gault Center

Mary Ann Scali – Directora ejecutiva, The Gault Center

Mary Ann Scali serves as the Executive Director of The Gault Center, where she works with youth defenders and advocates dedicated to promoting justice for all children by ensuring excellence in youth defense. After working as a summer law clerk for the then-National Juvenile Defender Center (now The Gault Center) in 1996, Mary Ann became the deputy director in 2000 and the executive director in 2017.

The Gault Center is the only US organization dedicated exclusively to supporting, educating, and uplifting youth defenders, to ensure the liberation of all children. The Gault Center advocates for societal responses that are equitable and inclusive of the rights and interests of children and seeks to ensure that the transformation of the legal system includes the protection of the rights of children, most notably, the right to counsel.

In partnership with The Gault Center team and youth defense leaders, for over two decades, Mary Ann has been delivering youth defense training and technical assistance, conducting state-level youth defense assessments, facilitating cross-disciplinary reform efforts, and developing resources and policies to strengthen youth defense, advance adolescent development and racial justice, and increase access to justice for all young people.

In a nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all,” what is the current landscape of youth rights and justice in the United States?

As a nation founded on principles of liberty and justice for all, we have yet to realize effective and equitable responses to young people in conflict with the law during critical periods of adolescence. We incarcerate young people at the highest rate in the world, most states in the country have no lower age of prosecution, we enable stark racial and ethnic disparities in legal decision making, and yet we continue to deny youth their essential right to counsel.

The United States stands alone in its establishment of ineffective laws and policies that criminalize childhood. Throughout the rest of the world, children and adolescents are able to test the boundaries of independence and explore identity development without facing arrest, shackling, strip searching, prosecution, and imprisonment. But in the United States, more than 700,000 youth are arrested each year. That’s nearly 2,000 every day. Children are charged with behavior that is deemed disruptive in school more than 100,000 times a year. More than two-thirds of prosecutions in juvenile court are for non-violent, non-person offenses.

Despite research showing youth behaviors are consistent across race and ethnicity, criminalization of youth is most profound in under-resourced communities. Black youth account for just 15 percent of the general youth population in the U.S. but 41 percent of youth incarcerated. Similarly, the number of youth living in poverty averages around 20 percent, yet estimates gauge that more than half of the young people in delinquency court live in poverty.

The Gault Center takes its name after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling of In re Gault in 1967, which mandated states guarantee that all children facing juvenile court proceedings receive meaningful representation from attorneys to defend their rights. After 56 years, what is your view on the current state of youth defense practice in the U.S.?

Throughout the nearly six decades since the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that states guarantee counsel to children in juvenile court, states have deliberately neglected their obligations to uphold young people’s constitutional rights, particularly the right to effective, meaningful representation by counsel. Youth defenders are inundated with staggering workloads, hampered by inadequate resources and training, and practicing in punitive courts that do not acknowledge the harms of legal system involvement.   

Across the country, many states defer to their counties to deliver youth defense services with little or to no state investment or oversight. At times, jurisdictions then pass the financial burden to youth and families by charging young people a fee to access their constitutional right to counsel. Where that happens, youth frequently waive counsel without appropriate safeguards or informed consent.

The rights and interests of young people are frequently left out of justice reform initiatives, how has The Gault Center advanced efforts to fulfil the constitutional rights of children?

The Gault Center has conducted assessments of access to and quality of youth defense in 29 states and has found youth defense infrastructures lacking the necessary investment to fully uphold the constitutional vision of counsel for young people. However, each state assessment has led to enduring changes in policy and practice that have strengthened youth rights. The Gault Center also works closely with nine youth defense regions and together we support youth defenders through training, technical assistance, and community and relationship development. We have cultivated pockets of excellence where our community of youth defenders persistently overcomes systemic barriers and affords the quality of defense services you would want for your own child.

Effective youth defense requires having a system in place that allows specialized youth defenders to authentically engage young people in their own defense. Due to the racialized origins of the juvenile legal system in this country, youth defenders must be equipped to fight against racial injustice and for the decriminalization of childhood. We foster specialization in youth defense through our 42-lesson youth defense training program, the Youth Defender Advocacy Program, that centers adolescent development and racial justice and requires an interactive delivery that integrates substantive knowledge with practice skills.

Given the insufficient investment in youth defense systems across the nation, does the Gault Center have recommendations or guidance on how states can meet the constitutional promises of In re Gault?

Effective youth defense systems must fully support early appointment of counsel, including the right to counsel at interrogation; independent investigation; rigorous motions practice; zealous trial preparation; innovative disposition planning; and continuing representation until court jurisdiction is closed.

At The Gault Center, we have developed a range of materials to support states and localities in developing systems of youth defense services that uphold the constitutional mandates of fairness and equity. In 2016, we issued Defend Children: A Blueprint for Effective Juvenile Defender Services to provide guidance on seven essential elements of youth defense systems. As we approached the 50th anniversary of In re Gault in 2017, we conducted an analysis of young people’s access to counsel and produced Access Denied: A National Snapshot of States’ Failure to Protect Children’s Right to Counsel, which details five key decision points where access to counsel remains elusive. Additionally, there is little awareness of or focus on the fact that nearly 50% of young people are represented by contract lawyers who largely practice without any systemic support or guidance. We reviewed the structures of youth defense systems across the states and issued Broken Contracts: Reimagining High-Quality Representation of Youth In Contract and Appointed Counsel Systems and an accompanying toolkit to assist states in improving their contract counsel systems.  

The 60th anniversary of In re Gault will be in 2027. With almost six decades of system deficiencies, are there any remedies to the ongoing deprivations of young people’s constitutional rights?

For the 55th anniversary of In re Gault, we issued Cause of Action: Fulfilling the Promises of Gault, highlighting the U.S. Department of Justice’s authority to initiate pattern and practice investigations where government agencies are systematically violating children’s constitutional rights. And in February 2024 we released a set of National Youth Defense System Standards that juxtapose the seven elements of effective youth defense systems outlined in Defend Children with past Department of Justice (DOJ) actions focused on deprivations of youth rights, including DOJ-initiated statements of interest, investigations, and settlement agreements that place an affirmative burden on states to uphold the constitutional rights of young people.  

What are The Gault Center’s goals for its work in the coming years?

The Gault Center and our community are reimagining the pathway toward the decriminalization of childhood. Our efforts will continue to focus on mobilizing a community of youth defenders and advocates to dismantle injustice while also centering young people most impacted by the legal system. In the coming years we are committed to legal system transformation through strategic implementation of our recently released set of National Youth Defense System Standards.

In the next few months, we will issue a Policy and Practice User’s Guide to accompany the System Standards and provide additional concrete actions defenders, advocates, and decisionmakers can take to actualize the constitutional rights promised to young people decades ago. Additionally, we are convening listening sessions across the country to be able to more fully demonstrate the harms the legal system imposes on young people when they are denied their constitutional rights. Our vision for this work is to cultivate a world where youth are free from systemic injustice and free to shape their own future.