Gault Case Changed Juvenile Law

In 1967 a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision gave juveniles accused of crimes the same due process rights as adults. The case involved Jerry Gault, who at 14 was given a seven-year sentence for a prank phone call. Gault's story didn't end there.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Forty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision known as In Re Gault. It established the constitutional right to legal counsel for children facing delinquency proceedings. The case involved a 14-year-old boy, who was sentenced to seven years in a juvenile detention center after making a lewd phone call.

Today, the right to counsel is assured under the law. But as NPR's Margot Adler reports, the quality of juvenile justice can often depend on geography.

MARGOT ADLER: Gerry Gault, the man who was detained back in 1964, rarely speaks in public. But he agreed to be on a panel about his case. Now nearly 60, Gerry Gault talked about his arrest and how he was unable to contact his parents. He was interviewed by Jackie Baillargeon of the Open Society Institute.

Ms. JACKIE BAILLARGEON (Director, Gideon Project, Open Society Institute): Did they tell you what you're charged with when they got you?

Mr. GERRY GAULT (Former Juvenile Delinquent): No, no.

Ms. BAILLARGEON: Did you see your parents before you were taken before the judge?

Mr. GAULT: No, ma'am.

Ms. BAILLARGEON: So it was a week before you saw your parents? Did you see a lawyer during that time frame?

Mr. GAULT: No, ma'am.

Ms. BAILLARGEON: When you got to the courtroom, what did you think was happening?

Mr. GAULT: At that time I was 14, you know, I didn't know.

Ms. BAILLARGEON: Did he ever say I'm charging you or convicting you of making a lewd phone call?

Mr. GAULT: Oh, that he did.

Ms. BAILLARGEON: Were any witnesses brought before the court?

Mr. GAULT: No, ma'am.

ADLER: Gault was eventually released. He worked at various jobs, spent 23 years in the military, and is now working on a teaching credential. Norman Dorsen was the lawyer who argued Gault before the Supreme Court. He found the case fascinating because an adult would have gotten a maximum sentence of 60 days for making an obscene phone call. Juveniles, he said, had the worst of both worlds.

Professor NORMAN DORSEN (Law, New York University): On the one hand, they were put in situations like Gerry's where they were, quote, "tried under some inadequate procedure, stood to lose their liberty for many, many years without due process." On the other hand, the treatment that was supposed to be at the root of the juvenile system did not occur or if it occurred, they occurred only in very few cases.

ADLER: In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution required at the least.

Prof. DORSEN: The right to a lawyer, the key, (unintelligible) self-incrimination, written notice of charges - without that, you don't even know what you're defending against - and the right to witnesses and cross-examine the witnesses against you.

ADLER: Dorsen says he assumed after the decision that the whole legal landscape would change. But that did not happen. Child advocates say there is a patchwork situation to juvenile justice - some states and counties assure representation and fund it, class and race are important here, poor counties have less resources.

Despite these stories, there have been some serious reforms. Judge David Bell is the chief justice of the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. He says his court was once described in The New York Times as the worst juvenile court in the nation.

Mr. DAVID BELL (Chief Justice, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court): That's my court.

ADLER: Judge Bell says there was a culture of failure in the court. But after Hurricane Katrina, the community came together to rebuild the system that had essentially been washed away.

Mr. BELL: We called in the district attorney. We called in the public defenders. We called in the New Orleans Police Department. And we say we're going to change the way we determine who gets detained. We're going to change -ought to change some criteria, and amazing things sort of happened. This sorting, sort of, developed on its own. We were able to separate kids and we were able to detain the right kids.

ADLER: They copied models from Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., sorted non-violent from violent offenders, put in educational and mental health assessments. But much of the future will depend on funding. Reforms have taken place in other states. Tamara Steckler is in charge of the Juvenile Rights Division of Legal Aid in New York City. In New York today, she says, there are all kinds of problems with the juvenile justice system, but the kids do get representation.

Ms. TAMARA STECKLER (Attorney-in-Charge, Juvenile Rights Division, Legal Aid Society): Every kid gets assigned a lawyer. They don't get to waive their right to a lawyer. We get to speak to them before they come into court - and their parents. So I think all that is really great. I think New York City really rises to the task in terms of how it allows kids to have representation.

ADLER: At the end of the day, the real issue may be how do you separate the teen behavior your brother might have done - making a prank phone call, stealing a pack of cigarettes - and truly violent kids or kids with serious mental health issues.

Judge Bell puts it this way.

Mr. BELL: Statistics teach us that 70 percent of these kids, if they're just left alone, they'll be all right.

ADLER: Which is why Judge Bell says he always asks, people were you ever a child? Did you ever do anything wrong? And if you did, would it have been better of you have been confined?

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York

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