May 15, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision In re Gault. Gerald Gault was a 16-year-old adjudicated and confined for making an illicit phone call to an elderly neighbor. Gerald was given no notice of the charges, no attorney, no opportunity to cross examine witnesses, and not informed of his right to remain silent when speaking to authorities. The Supreme Court determined these rights apply in juvenile delinquency court, firmly establishing the rule of law and due process.
While Gault emphasized the importance of counsel in juvenile proceedings, the ensuing response from court systems across the country has been mixed. Some states have a mandatory right to counsel, other states still require a showing of indigency from the parents. Attorneys might be appointed at the earliest stages of the case, like arrest, while others may have to wait until after arraignment, even being unrepresented at a detention hearing. Legal representation frequently ends after a disposition or sentence is entered, but what about the “guiding hand” of counsel while on probation or in a secured facility? Are attorneys properly trained, supported, and financed, or does juvenile defense continue to take a back seat to adult criminal representation? These issues and more need to be addressed before the promise of Gault can be fully achieved.
And Gault did more than shine a light on the quality and appointment of defense counsel. Prior to the decision, courts were run very differently from a procedural standpoint. Some jurisdictions chose to obey set rules and procedures, others practiced informally and eschewed rigid rules. These inconsistent rules led to inconsistent justice. After Gault, the Constitution prevailed. Youth had to know why they were brought into court. Youth could question those who accused them. For those youth in custody, the court had to respect their right to remain silent. This was a major shift from the prior designation as a “kangaroo court.”
When you bring these two concepts together in the real world, you create a court much different than was first conceived in the early 20th century. You give a child’s voice a true and expressed advocate to the court. You give a real chance to protect against inequality and abuse in the system. You also give a child confidence and hope in a system that, with robust protections, will treat him or her with respect and fairness. For these reasons and more, let us take a moment to recall and celebrate the decision of In re Gault and work together to fulfill its promise.
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This article was originally published in the National Juvenile Justice Network’s May 10, 2017 newsletter.