Major U.S. Supreme Court Decisions Impacting the Juvenile Justice System

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

The juvenile justice system has been impacted by many different major US Supreme Court decisions. In this lesson, investigate the juvenile justice system and decisions that affect pre-trial rights, trial, and sentencing. Updated: 10/20/2021

Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile court system addresses court cases that involve individuals under the age of 18. The system is over 100 years old, and the US Supreme Court cases that have impacted this system will be explored here.

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  • 0:04 Juvenile Justice System
  • 0:20 Decisions Affecting…
  • 1:44 Decisions Affecting Trial
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Decisions Affecting Pre-Trial Rights

In 1963, the US Supreme Court established that every citizen, including a juvenile, has the right to have an attorney in a criminal proceeding via Gideon v. Wainwright. Because of this case, the juvenile's attorney is integrated into the structure of the juvenile court process. The attorney answers any questions a juvenile may have and represents their legal rights in court. Also involved in the process is the juvenile's guardian ad litem, who is appointed by a juvenile court judge to represent and notify the court of the best interest of the child. The attorney is appointed at the very beginning of the pre-trial process.

Depending on the seriousness of the offense and the juvenile's age when he committed the offense, he may be facing a bindover. A bindover is a proceeding to determine if the juvenile should be tried as an adult in court instead of as a minor. Bindovers are mainly done in serious cases, such as murder. This bindover proceeding to determine where a juvenile case is held has not always existed. The US Supreme Court, in 1966, ruled in Kent v. United States that a juvenile is entitled to a hearing where his attorney can have access to all records and in which the court provides a written statement of all the reasons for the bindover to the adult system.

Decisions Affecting Trial

Today, the structure of the juvenile court remains essentially the same as it did decades ago. When a juvenile gets processed into the system, the juvenile can be held in custody at a detention home throughout the entire court process without having bond. The juvenile court system places a large emphasis on moving the cases quickly, however, so pretrials and court hearings are set in a speedy manner. At the conclusion of a trial, or if there is a guilty plea in a case, the juvenile is then adjudicated, if the judge makes a determination that the juvenile committed a delinquent offense.

This was not always so. Through the US Supreme Court case In re Gault in 1967, these constitutional trial rights were settled. In that case, Gault was on probation. He was charged with having made obscene phone calls to a female. He was adjudicated without a trial. The US Supreme Court ruled that in cases that could result in incarceration for a juvenile, that they had the same trial rights as an adult, such as a right to a lawyer, to question witnesses, and the right against self-incrimination.

Even after In re Gault was decided, the weight of the evidence required to adjudicate a juvenile had not been settled. It wasn't until In re Winship was decided in 1970 that the US Supreme Court ruled that, just as in adult court, juveniles had a right to have their cases proved by proof beyond a reasonable doubt before they could be adjudicated. This serves to protect the juvenile's due process rights through the US Constitution.

In juvenile court, a juvenile does not have a right to a jury trial, a trial by 12 of his fellow citizens, unless he has previously been bound over to the adult system after a pre-trial bindover hearing. At this point, then, the juvenile is facing adult sanctions if convicted of the offense. The fact that juveniles only have the right to a jury trial if they are bound over to the adult system was decided via the US Supreme Court case of McKeiver vs. Pennsylvania in 1971. In this case, a 16-year-old was facing a trial on larceny charges. His case was not bound over to the adult system and was therefore retained in the juvenile system. The court denied his attorney's request for a jury trial. The US Supreme Court affirmed the court's decision, stating that a jury trial would ruin the traditional closed character of juvenile proceedings and that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not require jury trials in juvenile court.

Decisions Affecting Sentencing

After the adjudication, the juvenile court disposes of the case. The point of disposition is not to punish a juvenile who has been adjudicated of the offense. The point is to find a good avenue to rehabilitate him. This is also called 'sentencing' in the adult system.

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