Juvenile Case History


In 1838, a man by the name of Crouse took the state to court over the incarceration of his daughter, Mary Ann. Mary Ann Crouse was being held at a house of refuge against her father’s wishes but at the bequest of her mother, who felt Mary Ann had become unruly and unmanageable. Mary Ann had not committed any crime. The courts held in Ex parte Crouse that the house of refuge was a reformatory rather than a jail, and Mary Ann’s behavior could be reformed as long as she remained there. In essence, the court ruled that the judicial system had the right to assist families with troubled youth.

Some thirty years later in People v. Turner (1870), Turner protested being held in a house of refuge against the wishes of both his parents. He was incarcerated because the state felt he was in danger of becoming a criminal. His parents actually won this case, and it was decided that the state should only intervene in troubled families given extreme circumstances. However, the verdict was largely ignored by the courts.

In 1905, a juvenile was given a seven-year sentence for a minor crime that would have received a far lesser sentence in an adult court. This dilemma was argued in Commonwealth v. Fisher. In this case, the court decided that the long sentence was necessary and in the best interests of the child, thus broadening juvenile court discretion under the parens patriae philosophy. It was not until Kent v. the United States in 1966, that the courts recognized the discretionary powers of parens patriae had gone too far and were perhaps encroaching on the constitutional rights of juveniles. In this case, 16-year-old Morris Kent had been waived to adult court without a hearing. Kent’s attorney challenged the decision, citing a sixth Amendment violation. This case scruti-nized the entire juvenile justice process, and as a result, a more formal set of procedures was established.

In 1967, another juvenile case was argued in the Supreme Court that also addressed the constitutional rights of juveniles. In re Gault addressed the separation of adult and juvenile courts, and Fifth and Sixth Amendment privileges for juveniles. Gerald Gault, a 15-year-old juvenile, had been sentenced to a maximum of six years in a state training school for making obscene phone calls to a woman. The case was originally heard in a very informal juvenile court proceeding. The accused was not represented by an attorney, and there was no transcript of the hearing. The Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile courts must protect the constitutional rights of juveniles, and rules and regulations must be imposed in the juvenile justice system:

Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not constitute a kangaroo court. The traditional ideas of the juvenile court procedure, indeed, contemplated that time would be available and care would be used to establish precisely what the juvenile did and why he did it. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).

The protection of juveniles’ rights upheld by In re Gault were further reinforced by In re Winship (1970), in which the Supreme Court extended the reasonable standard of doubt for guilt to juveniles. However, the following year, the right to trial by a jury of peers for juveniles was denied by the Supreme Court in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania. Several reasons were presented for the denial, including the notion that the juvenile system was not meant to be an adversarial one and was instead designed to be less formal and, therefore, more protective of juveniles’ privacy. The Supreme Court justices also felt that allowing juvenile trials by jury would be an indication that the juvenile courts had lost their usefulness.