Juvenile Court

A. Due Process Reforms

Like the social movement that created the houses of refuge, the juvenile court as an institution generally failed to advance rehabilitation over punishment. By the 1960s, it had become clear that the juvenile court needed further reform, because many juveniles faced long durations in secure facilities without benefit of due process. The U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, imposed important reforms on the juvenile court process.

In the 1960s, the Supreme Court began to hear appeals from juvenile court cases in an effort to settle the need for due process in the civil treatment-oriented juvenile courts. The parens patriae doctrine established in the Crouse case limited juveniles’ due process rights in exchange for treating needs over punishing wrongdoing (known as quid pro quo). In addition to the Supreme Court action during this period, President Johnson’s Commission of Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice criticized both the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system and called for comprehensive reform. There are several important cases during this period that led to the criminalization of the juvenile justice system. Only three are discussed at length here to highlight the way juveniles were being treated and how the Supreme Court decided the cases: (1) Kent v. United States, (2) In re Gault, and (3) In re Winship.

1. Kent v. United States

The first case that precipitated legal reform began in 1961, when Morris Kent, a 16-year-old boy, was charged with breaking and entering, robbery, and rape. Already on probation for breaking and entering and purse snatching when he was 14, Kent was arrested for breaking into a woman’s apartment, taking her purse (robbery), and raping her. The police found that latent fingerprints at the crime scene matched Kent’s prints taken during his previous arrest. While in custody, Kent’s mother hired an attorney who anticipated that the judge would waive, or transfer, the case to the adult criminal court, which would most likely result in a longer sentence; thus, the attorney planned to contest the waiver. In planning the case, the attorney filed a motion to see Kent’s social history. The judge, although he received the attorney’s motion, ruled in favor of waiver without holding a hearing. The judge did indicate that he had made his decision after conducting an investigation but did not elaborate on his decision.

After the juvenile court waived its jurisdiction, Kent was indicted in adult criminal court and later tried in front of a jury. The jury found him guilty on six counts of housebreaking and robbery but not guilty of rape by reasons of insanity. The judge sentenced Kent to prison for a term between 30 to 90 years. Kent was committed to a mental hospital until his sanity restored, at which time he would serve the remainder of his sentence in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court took up Kent’s appeal, which argued that he was denied due process during arrest and during the waiver decision. The Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile court had denied Kent his due process rights in violation of the District of Columbia statutes. The court affirmed that Kent should have had attorney representation, access to his related juvenile court records, a hearing specifically on the waiver decision with due process, and a detailed explanation from the judge for the reasons behind the waiver decision. In an appendix to the decision, the justices listed guidelines for future waiver hearings. The guidelines included eight criteria judges must consider for waiver: (1) community protection, (2) premeditation or aggressiveness of the offense, (3) a crime against persons, (4) reliability of available evidence, (5) adult criminal associates, (6) the juvenile’s sophistication and maturity, (7) prior offense record, and (8) amenability to treatment. Furthermore, the justices allowed that all factors need not be present to waive jurisdiction but said that the judge should address them in his or her final decision.

The Kent decision pertained only to the District of Columbia; however, juvenile courts across the country applied the criteria to their waiver decisions. Ironically, Kent was given a new hearing to reconsider the waiver decision after he had already been found guilty in adult court. The new hearing found that the judge had adhered to the criteria set out in Kent’s own appeal and thus the original waiver decision was valid. Kent therefore served the remainder of his sentence. The Kent decision had two important outcomes: (1) It signaled that parens patriae was no longer beyond due process considerations and (2) established that the Supreme Court would now hear juvenile appeals.

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