Gault is 50 – A Milestone in the Juvenile Justice System

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.

The Gault opinion showcases two diametrically opposed approaches to juvenile justice.  Justice Potter Stuart, the lone dissenter, believed that juvenile judges should have tremendous leeway to punish or incarcerate juveniles as they saw fit, so long as the measures imposed were designed to get the juvenile back on the correct track.  He believed that due process and constitutional protections were not necessary since states were trying to rehabilitate, as opposed to punish, the juvenile.  Indeed, they were an impediment to providing a wayward juvenile with the required assistance.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, relied on then-available social science research to undermine the notion that a harsh sentence is somehow designed to protect, as opposed to punish, a juvenile.  He also discussed the ways juveniles are damaged when incarcerated, particularly for long periods.  He was very critical of what he viewed as the misguided efforts of juvenile judges to replace constitutional protections with their own unique views of what was best for a juvenile defendant.

Ultimately, Gault protected juveniles from the capricious and unregulated conduct of judges who had what amounted to the unrestrained ability to impose whatever sentence they believed was appropriate under the circumstances of a given case.  As a result of this case, juveniles are required to receive constitutional rights and procedural protections.

Unfortunately, our juvenile justice system is still lacking in many important respects.  Many private attorneys handle relatively few juvenile cases, and are therefore not well-versed in this area.  Additionally, and as we have discussed previously on this blog, many judges view their assignments to juvenile court as being somehow beneath them.  Finally, a substantial number of juveniles are represented by overworked public defenders whose case lists are so large that they often find it difficult to give proper attention to any individual client.  All of these things must change before our juvenile justice system is truly fair.

Defense attorney James S. Friedman regularly represents juveniles charged with acts of delinquency in the Family Part of the New Jersey Superior Court.  The firm’s offices are centrally located in New Brunswick, in Middlesex County.




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