Gault, In Re 387 U.S. 1 (1967)

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GAULT, IN RE 387 U.S. 1 (1967)

In re Gault is the Supreme Court's most important landmark concerning juveniles, both because of its specific requirements for delinquency proceedings and because of its unequivocal declaration of the broad principle that young persons, as individuals, have constitutional rights of their own. Rejecting the informality that had long characterized state juvenile courts, the Supreme Court held that due process of law required four procedural safeguards in the adjudicatory (or guilt-determining) phase of delinquency proceedings: adequate written notice to the juvenile and his parents of the specific charges; notification of the right to counsel, with appointed counsel for those who lack the means to retain a lawyer; the right of confrontation and cross-examination of witnesses; and the notification of the right against self-incrimination. For the first time the Supreme Court declared boldly, in a seminal opinion by Justice abe fortas, that "whatever may be their precise impact, neither the fourteenth amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone."

The facts of the case dramatically suggested the risks of procedural informality and "unbridled discretion," which the Court saw as a poor substitute for "principle and procedure." Fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was found to be a delinquent and was committed for up to six years to the Arizona Industrial School for an offense that would have subjected an adult to a small fine and no more than two months' imprisonment. Neither Gerald nor his parents were ever served with a petition that disclosed the factual basis of the juvenile court proceedings. It was claimed that Gerald and a friend had made an obscene telephone call to a neighbor who never appeared in the proceedings. Although the judge subsequently reported that Gerald had made some sort of admission to him, no transcript was made of what was said at either of Gerald's two appearances before the judge, nor was Gerald offered counsel.

Although a few states had anticipated the Court's rulings in Gault by adopting new juvenile justice acts that provided greater safeguards, procedural informality had characterized most juvenile courts since their creation around 1900. This was typically justified on two interrelated grounds. First, the goal of juvenile proceedings was said to be treatment and rehabilitation, not punishment or deterrence. Second, investigation, diagnosis, and treatment required individualized determinations of what was best for each particular child. Legalistic formalities were seen as inconsistent and counterproductive in a benevolent and paternalistic institution committed to the rehabilitative ideal. State courts had refused to impose safeguards that "restrict the state when it seeks to deprive a person of his liberty," typically with conclusory statements that minors had no interest in liberty (because they would be subject in all events to parental control) or that delinquency proceedings were civil, rather than criminal, because their purpose was not punitive.

Gault rejected these traditional justifications. Pointing to various empirical studies, the Gault majority challenged the rehabilitative effectiveness of the juvenile justice system by suggesting that juvenile crime had increased since the establishment of the juvenile courts; questioned the value of procedural informality as a means to shape desirable attitudes about justice in the young people caught up by the system; and disparaged the significance, in terms of loss of liberty, of the difference between detention in a "home" or "school" after a finding of delinquency and incarceration after conviction of a crime. The strength of much of the social science evidence cited by the Court has been subsequently challenged, but the Court's willingness to attach substantial weight to the interest of a young person in avoiding the serious practical consequences of an erroneous determination of delinquency is certainly justified.

The Court did not suggest in Gault or in its subsequent decisions that the Constitution requires the state to treat a juvenile accused of delinquency in all respects like an adult accused of a similar act. The Court has extended other procedural safeguards to juveniles in delinquency proceedings—in in re winship (1970) it required proof beyond a reasonable doubt, for example, and in Breed v. Jones (1975) it held that the prohibition against double jeopardy applied—but it has refused, as in mckeiver v. pennsylvania (1971), to require trial by jury in delinquency proceedings. Although the traditional goals of the juvenile courts do not justify the absence of certain safeguards, Gault and its progeny suggest that the Constitution does not require abolition of the separate juvenile court system with some distinctive procedural features. Nor does Gault require the states to impose identical sanctions on minors and adults after a determination that a criminal statute has been violated. Indeed, by emphasizing that the procedural requirements extended only to the adjudicatory phase, and not to the dispositional phase, of delinquency proceedings, the Court in Gault argued that its decision did not threaten the emphasis juvenile courts have traditionally claimed to place on individualized treatment and rehabilitation.

Robert H. Mnookin

(see also: Children's Rights.)


Stapleton, W. Vaughan and Teitelbaum, Lee E. 1972 In Defense of Youth: A Study of the Role of Counsel in American Juvenile Courts. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.