Matthew T. Mangino: This year marks anniversary of landmark juvenile decision
In 1967, the high court made a decision that we take for granted today. The court ruled that a juvenile accused of a crime must be afforded due process. Those are the fundamental rights that protect us from government overreach--such as the right to be notified of charges; the right to confront witnesses; the right against self-incrimination; and, the right to counsel. Prior to 1967, those rights were not available to juveniles accused of a crime.Then one day in 1964, 15-year-old Jerry Gault made a lewd prank phone call to his neighbor. The neighbor called the police and Gault was arrested.A hearing was held the next day in an Arizona courtroom. There was no recording of the hearing. Gault’s neighbor didn’t show up, and no witnesses testified. He was not given a copy of the charges, and the court didn’t inform him of the charges he faced. He did not have an attorney because juveniles were not provided an attorney in Arizona at the time. Gault returned to court the following week. Like the first hearing, the neighbor who notified the police was not present and no record was made of the proceedings. A report was filed by the probation office accusing Gault of making a lewd phone call. He did not get an opportunity to present any evidence or have a trial on the charge. At the end of the hearing, the judge sentenced Gault to a juvenile detention facility until he reached the age of 21. Juveniles were not given a right to appeal in Arizona at this time, so Gault's parents filed a court action alleging that there was no legal authority to hold their son. Known as writ of habeas corpus, the action is appropriate where an individual is being detained without sufficient authority.The case ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court was clear— the Fourth Amendment is not for adults only.The Supreme Court reasoned that when a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent and deprived of freedom, due process requirements should attach. Indeed, the Court acknowledged that the gravity of Gault’s sentence turned on his being a juvenile, not an adult. The Court pointed out, had Gault committed the same offense when he was 18 or older “he would have been sentenced to a punishment of a $50 fine or a maximum of two months in jail.” The Court rejected the paternalistic view of juvenile proceedings in order to provide fairness and protection under the U.S. Constitution to juveniles who faced the real possibility of extended detention.In Re: Gault is a landmark Supreme Court decision for two important reasons. First, it prevented courts form hiding behind the idea that a juvenile hearing was about punishment— rather than rehabilitation—and therefore, juveniles need not be protected from constitutional violations. Second, it created the mentality that if a juvenile is old enough for rights she is old enough for stripes. As a result, it became easier to treat juveniles as adults for serious and repeated criminal activity. Those changes over the last 25 years have landed many juvenile offenders in adult jails and prisons. However, the Supreme Court has begun to focus attention on eliminating or dramatically reducing the most severe punishment imposed on juveniles. The tide is beginning to turn. In the time since Gault, the Supreme Court removed the death penalty for anyone 15 or under, then outlawed the death penalty for all juveniles. The high court also did away with life in prison without parole for any non-homicide offense and mandatory life without parole for juveniles.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino