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 citizen—including a child—is 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:
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.
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
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.
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.