On May 15, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court granted due process rights to children in the landmark case of In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). The case involved 15-year-old Gerald Gault, who was taken into police custody without notice to his parents, held for four days, and committed to a juvenile facility for a maximum of six years for making a prank phone call to his neighbor. He received no prior notice of the charges and was adjudicated delinquent following an informal hearing with a judge without any witnesses or representation by counsel. His case would spark outrage today but was the norm for juvenile proceedings at the time. When the Supreme Court reversed Gault’s adjudication, it transformed the nature of juvenile court by defining basic requirements of due process that now apply to all delinquency hearings. These rights include:
- the right to notice of the charges;
- the right to an attorney;
- the right to remain silent; and
- the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses.
While this decision marked a watershed moment in children’s rights, the language of the Court was not absolute. The Supreme Court did not extend these rights to all juveniles. Gault applies only to juveniles whose adjudication of delinquency may result in commitment to a state institution, which excludes undisciplined juveniles. The Court also limited its holding to the adjudicatory stage, leaving states open to define due process in other stages of juvenile proceedings (i.e., pre-adjudication, disposition, and post-disposition). Gault, 387 U.S. at 13. As a result, the decision did not completely change the legal landscape but left a legal patchwork among state jurisdictions that continues today. This post is the first in a series of posts that will discuss Gault’s impact on juvenile delinquency proceedings in NC and whether Gault’s promise of due process rights for children has been fully achieved.