During the first hundred years of U.S. history, young offenders were treated like adults by the courts. During the reform-oriented Progressive Era, most States established juvenile court systems and training schools intended to rehabilitate delinquent minors. A court that heard cases involving juvenile offenders exclusively could be found in most major U.S. cities by the early 20th century. The Progressive reformers attempted to instill a basic compassion in the justice system through these special courts. The system viewed the young offender more as a wayward child than as a potential criminal, while the juvenile court itself—utilizing a concept of law called parens patriae—functioned essentially as a surrogate parent. Proceedings were civil rather than criminal, and their intent was to protect and correct, rather than to punish.
That the Warren Court accepted the Gault case in 1966 came as no surprise. Having taken unprecedented latitude with the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, the Court embarked upon the most far-reaching revision of individual rights in U.S. history. In the Gault case, the same justices who had decided for the due process rights of Ernesto Miranda were, a year later, to consider which of those rights should be extended to minors.
A woman in Gila County, Arizona, named Mrs. Cook called the county sheriff after having received an obscene phone call. When a sheriff's officer came to her home and took her statement, Mrs. Cook accused Gerald Gault, a 15-year-old neighborhood boy, of having made the call. Young Gault had a bad reputation and was serving probation for a prior offense. The sheriff's officer went to the Gault home, placed Gerald Gault in custody, and took him to the juvenile detention center. The sheriff's department failed to notify Gault's parents that their son had been taken into custody. Gault's mother eventually got word of a hearing for her son scheduled for the following afternoon at the juvenile detention center. She attended the hearing, where the sheriff's officer who had conducted the investigation recounted Mrs. Cook's accusation. Mrs. Cook herself was not present, nor was any record made of the proceedings. No one was sworn in before giving testimony, Gault had no attorney with him, and he had not been advised of his rights. The judge decided that Gault was "involved" in the offense and ordered him detained.
A week later, Gault appeared at a dispositional hearing to determine what should be done with him. Again, no record was kept, nor was he informed of his right to remain silent or of his right to legal counsel. Neither he nor his parents were informed of the exact charges against him. During the hearing, Gault admitted that he had dialed Mrs. Cook's phone number, but that a "friend had done the talking." The hearing judge found Gault to be a "child in need of supervision" and assigned him to the Arizona Youth Industrial School until he reached age 21. While a person 18 years of age or older would have faced a maximum penalty of a $50.00 fine and jail term of two months, Gault was sentenced to reform school for six years. He had no right to an appeal under Arizona law. Gault's parents filed a petition for his release, which eventually reached the Supreme Court.
The case centered on the 14th Amendment and the due process rights of minors under the law. Did juveniles facing criminal charges have the same protections under the Constitution as adults? Was the State's effort to protect juveniles an unconstitutional infringement on their rights?
For Gerald Gault: Any effort by the State of Arizona to justify the sequence of events leading to Gerald Gault's placement in a State institution only serves to underline the weaknesses of the Arizona juvenile justice system. Gault's parents were not adequately notified of the charges. Gault and his family were allowed no legal help. The judge had no restraints or guidelines in determining the fate of the boy. The lack of a right to appeal (under Arizona law) was outrageous.
For Gila County, Arizona: Two different hearings were held. Gault, who was already on probation, admitted his guilt. His parents could have requested legal aid but did not. For the protection of the child, juvenile proceedings are confidential and not subject to review. Therefore, appeals by a juvenile were not possible under Arizona State law.
The Court voted 8–1 that Gault's commitment to the State Industrial School "was a clear violation of his 14th Amendment due process rights, since he had been denied the right to legal counsel, had not been formally notified of the charges against him, had not been informed of his right against self-incrimination, had no opportunity to confront his accusers and had been given no right to appeal his sentence to a higher court." Gault was released and a new hearing held under new conditions.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, offered biting commentary on the state of juvenile justice as it existed in Arizona. "Under our Constitution the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court. …Due process is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom," Fortas wrote. "It is the basic and essential term in the social compact which defines the rights of the individual and delimits the powers which the state may exercise…."
The opinion concluded with the Court's extension of "fundamental fairness" criteria to juvenile cases. At a minimum, juveniles were guaranteed a notice of charges, the right to an attorney, to cross-examine witnesses, and to confront their accuser, as well as the right to speak or to remain silent.
In two later cases, the Court clarified the limits of "juvenile due process." In the case In re Winship, 1970, the Court required that the juvenile court system determine a youth's involvement "beyond a reasonable doubt" before deciding on placement. This requirement replaced the civil law standard of "preponderance of evidence" which was used previously and which required a "higher standard" before a child could be convicted. Then, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 1971, the Court rejected the idea that a jury trial was required in juvenile court proceedings, observing that juvenile and adult systems of justice were not identical.