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In re Gault

In 1964, 15-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Gault was sentenced to serve nearly six years in a state industrial school for allegedly making a prank phone call. Soon after the phone call was made, Jerry was taken into police custody without his parents being notified of his arrest. Jerry reportedly confessed to the crime without a lawyer or his parents present. He was not advised of his right to silence, his right to be represented by an attorney, or the State’s obligation to provide him an attorney if his family could not afford one. Jerry appealed and the case made its way to the U.S Supreme Court. The Court determined that Jerry’s trial violated his right to due process, which every citizenincluding a childis guaranteed.

Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.
Justice Abe Fortas, Gault, 387 U.S. at 28.

The Court held that children facing prosecution in juvenile court have the same due process rights as adults, including:

  • The right to an attorney
  • The right to remain silent
  • The right to notice of the charges
  • The right to a full hearing on the merits of the case.

In re Gault, as the case came to be known, transformed loose juvenile court proceedings into formal hearings that afforded children essential rights. These rights, especially the right to an attorney, are the cornerstones of a fair juvenile justice system. But, 50 years later, many children still face charges in complex court systems without the basic representation guaranteed in the Gault decision.

Read the full Gault opinion, authored by Justice Abe Fortas.


Background on the campaign

Nearly five decades have passed since the Court decided Gault. Before 1967, children accused of a crime had virtually no legal rights. They were at the mercy of a legal system that often led to unjust results. But, even with the watershed changes required by the decision in Gault, the impact has not been fully realized for children. As the 50th anniversary of Gault approaches, we must recommit to honoring this landmark decision so that all children may be assured of its benefits. America’s children deserve nothing less. They are our most vulnerable defendants and our most valuable assets.

Watch former Executive Director Kim Dvorchak discuss Gault at 50 and “Why America’s Children Need Good Lawyers” at TEDxFoggyBottom.

In re Gault was a giant step forward for the rights of children. Yet, due to inconsistent enforcement and lack of awareness, the due process rights of our children in delinquency court are not protected. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.


juvenile delinquency cases each year


states have no laws saying how young is too young to prosecute a child


states do not restrict shackling of children in juvenile court


states do not allow jury trials in juvenile court

Upcoming Events

The National Juvenile Defender Center and its allies and partners will be commemorating the Gault decision in the run up to the 50th anniversary. Find an event below.

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    Vermont Public Radio
    Jun 14, 2017 - News Item

    Lahey: Due Process for Juveniles

    Fifty years on, many states continue to deny juveniles their right to counsel, either through legislation or in its implementation.
    May 24, 2017 - News Item

    Gault at 50: Conference to Offer Tips for ‘Front-Line’ Juvenile Lawyers

    You could call it the obscene phone call heard 'round the world. The May 1967 Supreme Court ruling that threw out Gerald Gault’s six-year commitment for lewd remarks over the telephone has led to half a century of juvenile justice reform.
    The Atlantic
    May 22, 2017 - News Item

    The Children Being Denied Due Process

    On June 8, 1964, Gerald Gault and Ronald Lewis were arrested when their neighbor, Mrs. Cook, alleged they had made a lewd phone call to her home. The police detained Gerald overnight and held a hearing the next day in the juvenile judge’s chambers.
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About NJDC

At the National Juvenile Defender Center, we promote justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense. NJDC was founded to guarantee every child facing prosecution in juvenile court is represented by an attorney who is specialized and trained to defend children.

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