Introduction: Symposium 2014: Vulnerable Defendants and the Criminal Justice System

13 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2015

See all articles by Tamar R. Birckhead

Tamar R. Birckhead

Yale Law School; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law

Katie Rose Guest Pryal


Date Written: June 1, 2015


The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) recently reported that, on a national scale, “studies estimate between 15 and 20 percent of jail and prison inmates have a serious mental illness.” However, due to lack of state and federal resources and a punitive rather than treatment-oriented approach to misconduct, the mentally ill are often incarcerated rather than provided with appropriate therapeutic care. Indeed, the mentally ill represent one of the most vulnerable groups that interact with the criminal justice system. Other particularly fragile groups caught up in the criminal justice system include people of color, undocumented immigrants, the physically and developmentally disabled, the homeless, and LGBTQ persons, including those who identify with more than one of these broad categories. Defendants from these groups face the challenge of not merely defending their liberty from the prosecutorial power of the state but attempting to do so from a place of extreme vulnerability.

Another vulnerable group is juveniles — those who are under the age of eighteen and charged with criminal offenses. According to recent data, 1.5 million cases are prosecuted in juvenile court annually. Large numbers of these child defendants have suffered abuse, neglect, or other maltreatment; are from impoverished families; or suffer mental or emotional disabilities. Tens of thousands of these young offenders are ultimately prosecuted in criminal court, with sentences to adult prisons where they are at risk of physical, sexual, and psychological victimization by adult inmates and guards. Adolescents transferred to the adult system can also experience harmful disruptions in their social, emotional, and identity development.

"Vulnerable Defendants and the Criminal Justice System," the symposium that gave rise to this issue of the North Carolina Law Review, explored these and related issues, including the following: How does the criminal justice system handle vulnerable offenders from the moment they are initially processed through to the conclusion of their sentences? Why are these groups overrepresented within our courtrooms and prisons? Can we identify and propose strategies for reform?

Keywords: crime, criminal justice, incarceration, juvenile justice, mental illness, defendants, disability, solitary confinement

Suggested Citation

Birckhead, Tamar R. and Pryal, Katie Rose Guest, Introduction: Symposium 2014: Vulnerable Defendants and the Criminal Justice System (June 1, 2015). North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 1211, 2015. Available at SSRN:

Tamar R. Birckhead

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

HOME PAGE: http://

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

Katie Rose Guest Pryal (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics