In 2003, the Clark County public defender’s office, particularly the juvenile division, was a disgrace. Understaffed and underfunded, if you were poor and needed legal help, an independent study said the office wasn’t providing quality representation, and had not been for years.
The American Civil Liberties Union was preparing to sue on the basis that children represented by the juvenile division were not receiving effective counsel because overworked attorneys were spending an average of two hours per case. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association condemned the office as it had operated under Public Defender Morgan Harris for 29 years. The study said the juvenile division was "beyond the crisis point."
In 2004, the new public defender, Phil Kohn, was told by then-County Manager Thom Reilly to "fix" the juvenile division. Kohn decided to keep Susan Roske as the chief deputy public defender, although initially he didn’t know whether she was the solution or the problem. She had been in the juvenile division since 1987 and became chief in 2003, the year of the damning report.
Turned out, she was the solution.
With funding from an embarrassed Clark County Commission, the Office of the Juvenile Public Defender went from three attorneys to 13, making caseloads more manageable.
Policy changes were also needed. Under the old system, juveniles remained in custody for several weeks before seeing a public defender. The new system: They see a public defender the day after they are arrested.
Over the past six years, Kohn has awarded one attorney the Scott H. Waite Award, named after the public defender who died in 2007. The award carries a quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Kohn honors prosecutors like Waite, who got along with clients, judges and public defenders but was incredibly aggressive. This year, out of the 110 attorneys on his staff, he selected Roske, the first attorney in the juvenile division to be so honored.
"I’m very proud of what Susan has done," Kohn said.
The cloud over the office from that scathing 2003 report has been lifted and positive changes enacted.
Plus, Roske has become a nationally recognized expert on sexually exploited juveniles.
Her most recent accomplishment took 10 years, but no longer will juveniles routinely be brought into court in shackles and belly chains. Over the objections of the marshals who wanted everyone chained, she and law professor Mary Berkheiser persuaded officials that it’s wrong to treat children like that.
Roske described the horror of seeing an 8-year-old entering court in shackles and chains: "It demeans them. It gives them the message they are wild animals."
Now, those constraints will only be used for a violent juvenile.
Roske made it clear a lawsuit would be filed if the shackling didn’t stop.
"They’ve done this in Miami for five years without any incidents," the mother of four said. "It’s one of the things I’m most proud of."
She has taken cases to successfully argue that listing juveniles as sex offenders on websites and requiring them to register as sex offenders the rest of their lives is unconstitutional.
Her latest passion is working with police, Family Court Judge William Voy and GOP Assemblyman John Hambrick to help sexually exploited juveniles and treat the underage girls as victims.
"There aren’t many things where Nevada is on the cutting edge," Kohn said. But because of Roske’s unusual partnership with law enforcement, she is on the cutting edge of human slavery issues, asked to speak and teach at national conventions.
Roske and Kohn agree that representing children is some of the office’s most important work because it can change a child’s life.
Susan Roske is just one worthy example of what Mead called "thoughtful, committed people" trying to change the world.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at 702-383-0275. She blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison.