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In re Gault

Further Readings

Originally, juvenile court was a place for the informal resolution of a broad range of matters concerning children. The hearings were not adversarial. Instead, they focused on the juvenile's best interests. A juvenile was brought to the juvenile court, the prosecution presented evidence, the juvenile and other witnesses gave testimony, and the juvenile court judge made a decision based on the perceived best interests of the juvenile.

In the same spirit of informality, juvenile courts provided fewer procedural protections than did adult courts. Juveniles did not have the right to a court-appointed attorney or to notice of charges of criminal behavior. They did not have the right to confront accusers and cross-examine witnesses. They did not have the right to a written record of the proceedings or to appeal the juvenile court judgment.

The problem with this lack of procedural protections was that a juvenile risked losing his or her liberty for several years. The best interests of the child usually involved placement in a secure reformatory or some other secure facility until the age of eighteen or, in some states, twenty-one. This amounted to a deprivation of liberty similar to that resulting from a prison sentence.

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that would change dramatically the character of juvenile courts. In In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 87 S. Ct. 1428, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527, fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was committed to a reform school until age twenty-one for allegedly making an obscene phone call to a neighbor. Gault had been found delinquent without receiving notice of the charges or the assistance of an attorney. In addition, Gault had been interviewed by a PROBATION officer without having an attorney present, and the statements made in this interview were submitted as proof that Gault had made the obscene phone call.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gault's commitment to the reformatory constituted a deprivation of liberty. This meant that Gault should have been provided with most of the procedural protections afforded to adults in criminal prosecutions. According to the Court in Gault, "[U]nbridled discretion, however benevolently motivated, is frequently a poor substitute for principle and procedure."

The purpose of the Gault decision was to make juvenile proceedings more fair to the juvenile. The decision accomplished this, but it also made juvenile proceedings more adversarial. With the increased procedural protections, juveniles became more capable of resisting commitment to secure reformatories, and it became more difficult for the juvenile courts summarily to obtain control over juveniles.

The adversarial tenor in contemporary juvenile courts is thus an unfortunate by-product of the decision in Gault. Prosecutors must now work harder to persuade the juvenile court to find in favor of the state so that the system may take control of the juvenile. They must shift the focus of juvenile court proceedings away from the needs of the juvenile and onto the offense. This shifted focus is similar to the focus of proceedings in adult criminal court, and it amounts to a reversal of the traditional emphasis in juvenile court.

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