Bullet U.S. Supreme Court cases have had an impact on the character and procedures of the juvenile justice system
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The Supreme Court has made its mark on juvenile justice

Issues arising from juvenile delinquency proceedings rarely come before the U.S. Supreme Court. Beginning in the late 1960's, however, the Court decided a series of landmark cases that dramatically changed the character and procedures of the juvenile justice system.

Kent v. United States
383 U.S. 541, 86 S.Ct. 1045 (1966)

In 1961, while on probation from an earlier case, Morris Kent, age 16, was charged with rape and robbery. Kent confessed to the offense as well as to several similar incidents. Assuming that the District of Columbia juvenile court would consider waiving jurisdiction to the adult system, Kent's attorney filed a motion requesting a hearing on the issue of jurisdiction.

The juvenile court judge did not rule on this motion filed by Kent's attorney. Instead, he entered a motion stating that the court was waiving jurisdiction after making a "full investigation." The judge did not describe the investigation or the grounds for the waiver. Kent was subsequently found guilty in criminal court on six counts of housebreaking and robbery and sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison.

Kent's lawyer sought to have the criminal indictment dismissed, arguing that the waiver had been invalid. He also appealed the waiver and filed a writ of habeas corpus asking the State to justify Kent's detention. Appellate courts rejected both the appeal and the writ, refused to scrutinize the judge's "investigation," and accepted the waiver as valid. In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kent's attorney argued that the judge had not made a complete investigation and that Kent was denied constitutional rights simply because he was a minor.

The Court ruled the waiver invalid, stating that Kent was entitled to a hearing that measured up to "the essentials of due process and fair treatment," that Kent's counsel should have had access to all records involved in the waiver, and that the judge should have provided a written statement of the reasons for waiver.

Technically, the Kent decision applied only to D.C. courts, but its impact was more widespread. The Court raised a potential constitutional challenge to parens patriae as the foundation of the juvenile court. In its past decisions, the Court had interpreted the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to mean that certain classes of people could receive less due process if a "compensating benefit" came with this lesser protection. In theory, the juvenile court provided less due process but a greater concern for the interests of the juvenile. The Court referred to evidence that this compensating benefit may not exist in reality and that juveniles may receive the "worst of both worlds"—"neither the protection accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children."

In re Gault
387 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1428 (1967)

Gerald Gault, age 15, was on probation in Arizona for a minor property offense when, in 1964, he and a friend made a crank telephone call to an adult neighbor, asking her, "Are your cherries ripe today?" and "Do you have big bombers?" Identified by the neighbor, the youth were arrested and detained.

The victim did not appear at the adjudication hearing, and the court never resolved the issue of whether Gault made the "obscene" remarks. Gault was committed to a training school for the period of his minority. The maximum sentence for an adult would have been a $50 fine or 2 months in jail.

An attorney obtained for Gault after the trial filed a writ of habeas corpus that was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue presented in the case was that Gault's constitutional rights (to notice of charges, counsel, questioning of witnesses, protection against self-incrimination, a transcript of the proceedings, and appellate review) were denied.

The Court ruled that in hearings that could result in commitment to an institution, juveniles have the right to notice and counsel, to question witnesses, and to protection against self-incrimination. The Court did not rule on a juvenile's right to appellate review or transcripts, but encouraged the States to provide those rights.

The Court based its ruling on the fact that Gault was being punished rather than helped by the juvenile court. The Court explicitly rejected the doctrine of parens patriae as the founding principle of juvenile justice, describing the concept as murky and of dubious historical relevance. The Court concluded that the handling of Gault's case violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment: "Juvenile court history has again demonstrated that unbridled discretion, however benevolently motivated, is frequently a poor substitute for principle and procedure."

Figure 4

In re Winship
397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068 (1970)

Samuel Winship, age 12, was charged with stealing $112 from a woman's purse in a store. A store employee claimed to have seen Winship running from the scene just before the woman noticed the money was missing; others in the store stated that the employee was not in a position to see the money being taken.

Winship was adjudicated delinquent and committed to a training school. New York juvenile courts operated under the civil court standard of a "preponderance of evidence." The court agreed with Winship's attorney that there was "reasonable doubt" of Winship's guilt, but based its ruling on the "preponderance" of evidence.

Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, the central issue in the case was whether "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" should be considered among the "essentials of due process and fair treatment" required during the adjudicatory stage of the juvenile court process. The Court rejected lower court arguments that juvenile courts were not required to operate on the same standards as adult courts because juvenile courts were designed to "save" rather than to "punish" children. The Court ruled that the "reasonable doubt" standard should be required in all delinquency adjudications.

McKeiver v. Pennsylvania 403 U.S. 528, 91 S.Ct. 1976 (1971)

Joseph McKeiver, age 16, was charged with robbery, larceny, and receiving stolen goods. He and 20 to 30 other youth allegedly chased 3 youth and took 25 cents from them. McKeiver met with his attorney for only a few minutes before his adjudicatory hearing. At the hearing, his attorney's request for a jury trial was denied by the court. He was subsequently adjudicated and placed on probation.

The State supreme court cited recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that had attempted to include more due process in juvenile court proceedings without eroding the essential benefits of the juvenile court. The State supreme court affirmed the lower court, arguing that of all due process rights, trial by jury is most likely to "destroy the traditional character of juvenile proceedings."

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the due process clause of the 14th amendment did not require jury trials in juvenile court. The impact of the Court's Gault and Winship decisions was to enhance the accuracy of the juvenile court process in the fact-finding stage. In McKeiver, the Court argued that juries are not known to be more accurate than judges in the adjudication stage and could be disruptive to the informal atmosphere of the juvenile court, tending to make it more adversarial.

Breed v. Jones
421 U.S. 519, 95 S.Ct. 1779 (1975)

In 1970, Gary Jones, age 17, was charged with armed robbery. Jones appeared in Los Angeles juvenile court and was adjudicated delinquent on the original charge and two other robberies.

At the dispositional hearing, the judge waived jurisdiction over the case to criminal court. Counsel for Jones filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the waiver to criminal court violated the double jeopardy clause of the fifth amendment. The court denied this petition, saying that Jones had not been tried twice because juvenile adjudication is not a "trial" and does not place a youth in jeopardy.

Upon appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an adjudication in juvenile court, in which a juvenile is found to have violated a criminal statute, is equivalent to a trial in criminal court. Thus, Jones had been placed in double jeopardy. The Court also specified that jeopardy applies at the adjudication hearing when evidence is first presented. Waiver cannot occur after jeopardy attaches.

Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court in and for Oklahoma City
480 U.S. 308, 97 S.Ct. 1045 (1977)

The Oklahoma Publishing Company case involved a court order prohibiting the press from reporting the name and photograph of a youth involved in a juvenile court proceeding. The material in question was obtained legally from a source outside the court. The U.S. Supreme Court found the court order to be an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of the press.

Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company
443 U.S. 97, 99 S.Ct. 2667 (1979)

The Daily Mail case held that State law cannot stop the press from publishing a juvenile's name that it obtained independently of the court. Although the decision did not hold that the press should have access to juvenile court files, it held that if information regarding a juvenile case is lawfully obtained by the media, the first amendment interest in a free press takes precedence over the interests in preserving the anonymity of juvenile defendants.

Schall v. Martin
467 U.S. 253, 104 S.Ct. 2403 (1984)

Gregory Martin, age 14, was arrested in 1977 and charged with robbery, assault, and possession of a weapon. He and two other youth allegedly hit a boy on the head with a loaded gun and stole his jacket and sneakers.

Martin was held pending adjudication because the court found there was a "serious risk" that he would commit another crime if released. Martin's attorney filed a habeas corpus action challenging the fundamental fairness of preventive detention. The lower appellate courts reversed the juvenile court's detention order, arguing in part that pretrial detention is essentially punishment because many juveniles detained before trial are released before, or immediately after, adjudication.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the preventive detention statute. The Court stated that preventive detention serves a legitimate State objective in protecting both the juvenile and society from pretrial crime and is not intended to punish the juvenile. The Court found there were enough procedures in place to protect juveniles from wrongful deprivation of liberty. The protections were provided by notice, a statement of the facts and reasons for detention, and a probable cause hearing within a short time. The Court also reasserted the parens patriae interests of the State in promoting the welfare of children.



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1999 National Report Series, Juvenile Justice
Bulletin: Juvenile Justice: A Century of Change
December 1999