Juvenile Court

3. In re Winship

In 1970, the Supreme Court heard the case of 12-yearold Samuel Winship, who was charged with stealing $112 dollars at a department store. At the adjudication hearing, Winship’s attorney established that the key eyewitness was in a different part of the store at the time of the theft and thus could not have seen Winship steal the money. The judge ruled that Winship was delinquent based on a preponderance of the evidence—that the evidence was sufficient to establish that Winship had committed the theft. Winship’s attorney questioned the judge about the evidentiary standard, because the eyewitness testimony failed to establish that Winship was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge ruled that the state’s statute on juvenile justice calls for a preponderance of the evidence, a standard of evidence use in civil court.

The Supreme Court again ruled in favor of due process rights for juveniles given that Winship was likely to spend several years in a secure facility. As in Gault, the justices questioned the quid pro quo of the parens patriae doctrine. They ruled that in delinquency cases where a juvenile faced a sentence in a secure facility, the judge must use the reasonable doubt standard before finding juveniles delinquent. Moreover, they made the ruling retroactive so that juveniles who had been committed under the preponderance of the evidence standard prior to the Winship case had to be released or readjudicated. This ruling, like the ones in Gault and Kent, signaled the criminalization, or imposition of due process, in the treatment-oriented juvenile court.

Two more Supreme Court cases during this era affected juvenile courts: (1) McKeiver v. Pennsylvania and (2) Breed v. Jones. The McKeiver case centered on whether juveniles had the right to a jury trial. Unlike in the previous three cases, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles did not have a constitutional right to trial by jury. In the Gault and Kent cases, the Supreme Court had ruled on the fact-finding by judges and found that due process was necessary to curb abuse. The court stopped short of giving full due process rights to juveniles with McKeiver because they claimed the juvenile court was, in fact, different from the adult criminal courts and they wished to preserve its unique nature. A jury trial, they reasoned, would severely intrude on the informal nature of the juvenile court. The second case, Breed v. Jones, established that double jeopardy applied to adjudication hearings: Juveniles could not be tried twice for the same offense, once in juvenile court and again in adult court. In the Kent decision the justices had called the juvenile court the “worst of both worlds,” meaning that juveniles got neither the due process protection that adults enjoyed nor the rehabilitative treatment that the Progressives had promised. The total effect of the Supreme Court reforms was to ensure due process rights while retaining some of the informal and treatment orientation of the original system. Breed v. Jones was the last case in the historic Supreme Court restructuring of the juvenile court system. By the time of the McKeiver decision, the Warren Court had been replaced by the more conservative Berger Court (four conservative justices were appointed by President Nixon).

These Supreme Court cases were not the end of attempts to reform the juvenile court. Other Supreme Court cases, along with federal and state initiatives, have attempted to return the juvenile court to its original goal of rehabilitation even in a milieu of harsh punishment and individual responsibility. Criminologist Tom Bernard (1992) referred to this ongoing succession of reform as the cycles of juvenile justice. The reforms attempted to date have had unanticipated consequences. Other attempts at reform have included targeted strategies, such as reducing disproportionate minority confinement and individualized treatment courts such as drug and DWI courts.

Although juvenile are now able to assert their due process rights, the dilemma of parens patriae continues: informal justice to facilitate treatment versus formal processing to guarantee due process. For example, juvenile courts operating under a traditional treatment orientation tend to view legal representation as an impediment to rehabilitation; that is, juveniles who retain counsel may escape treatment on legal grounds. Thus, some judges and probation officers unofficially de-emphasize due process in their courts. For example, an intake officer may inform a juvenile of her right to counsel but tell her that confessing without counsel present will ensure she gets more favorable treatment by the judge.

Because the Supreme Court due process reforms have not been fully implemented in many jurisdictions, some critics have called for the abolition of the juvenile court for all delinquency matters. The critics propose that delinquency cases be heard in the adult criminal courts so juveniles are assured full due process. This does not mean juveniles will fail to get treatment; instead, they can still receive a sentence for probation by a juvenile probation officer or placement in a residential treatment facility. Furthermore, the adult court judge would consider the youth and immaturity of the juveniles as a mitigating factor. To date, no state has considered abolishing the juvenile court.

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