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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court

Juvenile Rights

Prior to the 1960s, juveniles accused of delinquent offenses had virtually no due process rights in American juvenile courts. Since the official purpose of the juvenile court process was to help rather than to punish, it was thought to be unnecessary to protect juveniles in the same ways that adult defendants were protected in criminal court. Juveniles arrested for delinquency had no right to an attorney unless they happened to live in a jurisdiction where this was granted to them by state or local law. They had no federal right to inspect or challenge evidence against them, or even be informed of the charges against them. The sweeping discretion of juvenile court judges had never been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and local judges throughout the country were free to run their juvenile courts as they saw fit.

The situation changed suddenly and dramatically in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in a case known as In re Gault. An Arizona juvenile court judge had institutionalized fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault for making a mildly obscene telephone call to a neighbor. Based on the neighbor's complaint, Gerald was picked up by the local sheriff and placed in juvenile detention. The juvenile court did not bother to notify Gerald's family that he was in custody. It never heard testimony from the victim in the case, and it never established whether Gerald had actually made the call. Gerald was committed to a state institution for delinquent boys for the "period of his minority," or three years. If he had been an adult, his sentence would likely have been a small fine.

The Supreme Court's reaction to Gault's appeal was harsh and far-reaching. In any delinquency proceeding in which confinement was a possible outcome, the Court ruled, youth should have the right to formal notice of charges against them and the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, the right to assistance of counsel, and the protection against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the fact that Gault had clearly been punished by the juvenile court, not treated. The opinion also explicitly rejected the doctrine of parens patriae as the founding principle of juvenile justice. The Supreme Court described the meaning of parens patriae as "murky" and characterized its "historic credentials" as of "dubious relevance."

Gault was one of a series of juvenile justice cases decided by the Supreme Court in the 1960s Figure 4 SOURCE: C. P. Manfredi, The Supreme Court and Juvenile Justice. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. P. 35. For the period 1941-1965. National Juvenile Court Data Archive, National Center for Juvenile Justice, Pittsburgh, Pa. 1999. For the period 1968-1997. and 1970s. Together, the cases imposed significant procedural restrictions on U.S. juvenile courts. By the 1980s, juvenile courts had been "constitutionally domesticated." Juveniles charged with law violations had far more due process protections, although they were still denied the federal rights of bail, jury trial, and speedy trial. Juvenile courts were required to follow a higher standard of evidence ("reasonable doubt" rather than "preponderance") and juvenile court adjudication was considered equivalent to a criminal conviction in evaluating double jeopardy claims.

Some critics contend that the consequences of these reforms may not have been fully appreciated by youth advocates or even by the Supreme Court itself. As Justice Potter Stewart warned in his dissent to Gault, the introduction of greater due process for juveniles may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging states to make their juvenile courts more like criminal courts:

The inflexible restrictions that the Constitution so wisely made applicable to adversary criminal trials have no inevitable place in the proceedings of those public social agencies known as juvenile or family courts. And to impose the Court's long catalog of requirements upon juvenile proceedings in every area of the country is to invite a long step backwards into the nineteenth century. In that era there were no juvenile proceedings, and a child was tried in a conventional criminal court with all the trappings of a conventional criminal trial. So it was that a 12-year-old boy named James Guild was tried in New Jersey for killing Catharine Beakes. A jury found him guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was executed. It was all very constitutional (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 1967, pp. 79–80).

Table 1 SOURCE: Melissa Sickmund, "Offenders in Juvenile Court, 1997." Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Origins, Expansion, Retrenchment, Structure, Personnel, Process, Caseload, Juvenile Rights, Continuing Controversies