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IN RE GAULT 387 U.S. 1

Argued December 6, 1966. - Decided May 15, 1967

By Mike Hyde, The Webmaster


Sometime before 10 A.M. on June 8, 1964, Gerald Gault and his friend Ronald Lewis called up a neighbor, Mrs. Cook, and made lewd remarks “of the irritatingly offensive, adolescent, sex variety.”  She got offended, called the Sheriff’s Office and made a complaint.  Gerald and Ronald were taken into custody at 10 A.M. by the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.  To add to Gerald’s misfortune, he was already on probation for an incident with another friend.  He was placed on 6 months probation on February 25, 1964, “as a result of his having been in the company of another boy who had stolen a wallet from a lady’s purse.” 

There was no attempt to contact Gerald’s parents when he was arrested.  It wasn’t until after 6 O’clock when they got home from work that they knew anything was wrong.  They sent Gerald’s brother over to the trailer house where the Lewis’ lived to look for Gerald.  It was then that they found out he had been arrested and taken to the children’s detention home.  Gerald’s mother and brother went to the detention home to try and get some information.  “The deputy probation officer, Flagg, who was also superintendent of the detention home, told Mrs. Gault ‘why Jerry was there’ and said that a hearing would be held in juvenile court at 3 O’clock the following day, June 9, 1964.  It was.”  At that hearing officer Flagg filed a petition to have Gerald declared a delinquent.  The Gaults were not informed of this petition.

Gerald was not released from custody until June 11th or 12th and his parents were informed of his pending release by a note left at their house by Officer Flagg.  This handwritten note was also their notification of Gerald’s pending delinquency hearing on June 15th, 1964.

At the hearing, without any witnesses and a dispute as to what role Gerald actually played in the call, he was sentenced “as a juvenile delinquent to the state industrial school ‘for the period of his minority (that is, until 21), unless sooner discharged by due process of law.’”  An adult found guilty of the same crime would have received a $5-$50 fine or imprisonment for not more than 2 months.

Feeling that their son had received unfair treatment Gerald’s parents got a lawyer and filed a “Writ of Habeas Corpus”.  A Writ of Habeas Corpus is basically a procedure that initiates a court hearing.  It is used most often to contest what is believed to be an improper or illegal imprisonment.   The Arizona Supreme Court denied the writ but the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Gaults and held:

  • “Kent V. United States, 383 U.S. 541, 562 (1966), held “that the waiver hearing must measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment.”  This view is reiterated, here in connection with a juvenile court adjudication of “Delinquency,” as a requirement which is part of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment of our constitution.  The holding in this case relates only to the adjudicatory stage of the juvenile process, where commitment to a state institution may follow………”
  • “Due process requires, in such proceedings, that adequate written notice be afforded the child and his parents or guardian.  Such notice must inform them “of the specific issues that they must meet” and must be given “at the earliest practicable time, and in any event sufficiently in advance of the hearing to permit preparation.”  Notice here was neither timely nor adequately specific, nor was there waiver of the right to constitutionally adequate notice.”
  • “In such proceedings the child and his parents must be advised of their right to be represented by counsel and, if they are unable to afford counsel, that counsel will be appointed to represent the child……..”
  • “The constitutional privilege against self-incrimination is applicable in such proceedings……”
  • “Absent a valid confession, a juvenile in such proceedings must be afforded the rights of confrontation and sworn testimony of witnesses available for cross-examination.”
  • “Other questions raised by appellants, including the absence of provision for appellate review of a delinquency adjudication, and a transcript of the proceedings, are not ruled upon.”

I am no legal scholar, but my understanding is that under this ruling a juvenile court proceeding is now held to the same rules as an adult court proceeding.  I have read several authors that see this case as the event that changed juvenile justice from that of a civil proceeding that focused on rehabilitation to a criminal proceeding that is more focused on punishment.  I think it is just one of many cases that have shaped juvenile justice into what it is today.  It wasn’t long after this that many juvenile justice systems were so overwhelmed with court proceedings that they weren’t able to focus on the lesser crimes and reach children early in their criminal careers. 

I also believe it was one of many cases that have caused juvenile justice to come almost full circle to what it was before there were juvenile justice systems.  Think about the situation today when you read this next part which is also part of the same 1967 Supreme Court Ruling (emphasis mine): 

The early reformers were appalled by adult procedures and penalties, and by the fact that children could be given long prison sentences and mixed in jails with hardened criminals."  They were profoundly convinced that society’s duty to the child could not be confined by the concept of justice alone.  They believed that society’s role was not to ascertain whether the child was ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’ but ‘what is he, how has he become what he is, and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career.’  The child – essentially good, as they saw it – was to be made ‘to feel that he is the object of the state’s care and solicitude,’ not that he was under arrest or on trial.  The rules of criminal procedure were therefore altogether inapplicable.  The apparent rigidities, technicalities, and harshness which they observed in both substantive and procedural criminal law were therefore to be discarded.  The idea of crime and punishment was to be abandoned.  The child was to be ‘treated’ and ‘rehabilitated’ and the procedures from apprehension though institutionalization, were to be ‘clinical’ rather than punitive.”  The ruling continues on and in my opinion says that the whole rehabilitation focus was misdirected and “the results have not been entirely satisfactory”

I believe Gerald Gault was probably treated unfairly by the local judge and received somewhat of a harsh sentence.  But he was definitely headed down a bad path having been arrested twice in just a few months.  It was also a time when juvenile justice systems didn’t wait until they committed a violent crime to do something.  Finally he would not have been required to serve the entire 6 years in the state school; the school could have released him when they felt he was rehabilitated.  I do think that this along with other cases has done little to improve the juvenile justice system and may have made it much worse by requiring it to mirror the adult system.  Today it seems that the children are ignored when they are younger and involved in lesser crimes only to have them become involved in more violent and hardened criminal activity, thus resulting in “long prison sentences and mixed in jails with hardened criminals.”

If you don’t believe me talk to any experienced houseparent or residential worker that works in a behavioral modification program and they will tell you how much more hardened the children being placed are today than they were even a few years ago let alone back in 1964

The entire Supreme Court ruling can be viewed at: http://www.fedworld.gov/supcourt/ just use the keyword gault in the search engine.  It will be the first result.

You can find many other opinions and commentaries about this case by typing “In Re Gault” into any search engine.

Items within quotation marks taken directly from the ruling.


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