50 years ago last week, the United States Supreme Court decided In re Gault, which guaranteed juvenile defendants many of the same due process rights held by adult criminal defendants. For the first time, a Court held that juvenile matters are, in fact, adversarial criminal proceedings, and that juvenile criminal defendants therefore have a right to a defense attorney, procedural protections, and the opportunity to present their version of the underlying facts in an open hearing.
The facts of Gault are relatively simple. Gault, age 15, was accused of making obscene telephone calls to a neighbor and, as a result, was sentenced to a six-year custodial term in a violent youth facility. Significantly, an adult charged with a similar offense would have been fined $50.00, and sentenced to up to two month in jail. Gault was also on probation at the time of this incident for being in the company of another teen who stole someone’s purse, although he was not accused of any wrongdoing in connection with that incident. There was no trial in the case involving the telephone call. In fact, there is no transcript or any record of what occurred during his hearings in juvenile court. Gault purportedly confessed to making the calls with a friend. His parents were not present in court, or even informed of the charges prior to his alleged confession.
The underlying issue in Gault was the extent to which states could dispense with due process rights in juvenile criminal matters in the interest of doing what was believed to be in the juvenile’s best interests. However, courts around the country were grappling with this problem prior to Gault. There are cases dating back to the 1800’s that raised the same question. Further, just a few months before Gault, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a juvenile may not be entitled to the full panoply of constitutional rights, but must still receive the basic elements of due process and fair treatment. Continue reading