Juvenile Court

2. In re Gault

The case of Gerald Gault followed the Kent decision in 1967 and affirmed due process protections for juveniles throughout the entire juvenile justice system. In Arizona, in 1964, Gerald Francis Gault, age 15, and Ronald Lewis made an obscene phone call to a neighbor, Mrs. Cook. The obscene phone call included the following statements: “Do you give any?” “Do you have big bombers?” and “Are your cherries ripe today?” Incensed, Mrs. Cook called the sheriff, who arrested Gault and Lewis, placing them in a detention facility. Gault’s parents were not informed that he had been detained; Gault’s mother learned about the detention from the Lewis family.

Mrs. Cook did not attend the hearing the next day, so she did not identify the boys as the callers or offer any testimony. The judge claimed that Gault had admitted to making the lewd statements, but Gault denied making any such confession, claiming that he had only dialed the number. Gault was released to his parents until a second hearing that would decide the outcome.

At a second hearing, Gault’s mother requested that Mrs. Cook be called as a witness to identify the voice of the caller, but the judge said that Mrs. Cook need not be in attendance. There was no transcript kept of the hearings. The judge found Gault delinquent and committed him to a state industrial school until his 21st birthday (a 6-year sentence). The judge later justified his disposition decision on the grounds that Gault had engaged in disturbing the peace and had a history of delinquent behavior (he was on probation for being in the company of another youth who had stolen a purse). Had Gault been an adult, the outcome could have been only a maximum of 18 months and a $50 fine. Gault’s parents hired an attorney who filed a writ of habeas corpus (Arizona did not allow appeals for juvenile cases). The writ was the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Gault’s attorney argued that the juvenile court had denied him six constitutional rights: (1) right to notice of charges, (2) right to counsel, (3) right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, (4) right against self-incrimination, (5) right to transcript of the proceedings, and (6) right to an appeal. The Supreme Court ruled in Gault’s favor in four of the six points but did not rule on the right to a transcript or the right to an appeal because there is no constitutional guarantee of appeal and thus no need for a right to a transcript. In its reasoning, the majority argued that the juvenile court was punishing Gault rather than treating him, especially considering that he was at risk for a lengthy commitment in a secure facility, a sentence that no adult would have faced. The justices also questioned the foundation of parens patriae, because the performance of the juvenile justice system seemed to have failed to live up to its intentions. The Supreme Court ultimately concluded that due process protections were necessary when juveniles were likely to face lengthy incarceration.

Because the Gault case had constitutional ramifications, it applied to the entire country, unlike Kent v. United States. The Supreme Court’s affirmation of due process in the traditionally informal juvenile court attempted to reform the institution. After the Gault decision, juveniles had the rights to know the charges, to counsel, to confront witnesses, and to remain silent. The actual implementation of these legal reforms, however, remained limited. Juveniles were likely to have their constitutional rights explained to them by probation officers, much like the Miranda warning given by police, but most juveniles did not ask for legal representation, and most juveniles routinely confessed to the crimes. The implementation of the Gault reforms, although important, remains problematic today. This is discussed in more detail later in this research paper.

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