Source: (2007) New Hampshire Bar Journal. 48(2): 58-67.
May 15, 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of In re Gault, the most important case in the history of the juvenile
Even casual observers of the court know that Gault vested delinquents nationwide with constitutional protections
for the first time, the right to counsel being foremost. No longer could juvenile court rationales justify extreme miscarriages
of justice, keeping in mind that 15-year old Gerald Gault was sentenced to six years in reform school for purportedly
making a lewd phone call to a neighborhood woman.Although Gault continues to be worthy of celebration for its insistence on basic rights for youthful offenders, there
was a troubling side to Gault which is often overlooked. Simply put, injecting rights into the historically informal juvenile
court with its singular rehabilitative mission ran the risk of rendering the court virtually indistinguishable from the
criminal justice system. Given that the principal reason for creating the new juvenile court at the turn of the 20th century
was the inappropriateness of the adult system for minors, this was no small concern.
United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Fortas, writing for the majority, was confident that the insistence on
some fundamental rights for delinquents would not affect the basic workings of the court. Justice Stewart was far less
confident. More than this, Stewart saw a profound incompatibility between rights and the juvenile court’s historical
manner of processing delinquents — to an extent that he was convinced Gault sounded the death knell for the juvenile
court as a unique judicial institution. He was not alone in this regard amongst the Gault justices.
Thus, the 40th anniversary of Gault is also an occasion to re-visit this great debate and to see how over time the
juvenile court has fared and who was right. An assessment begins with a look at the pre-Gault juvenile court: the young
people it served and its governing philosophy. (Excerpt)
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