“Due process is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom,” Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the majority opinion of the Court’s landmark 1967 juvenile justice decision, In re Gault — a decision that established that under the Constitution, juveniles in delinquency proceedings are guaranteed many of the same due process rights as adults in criminal trials
But today, nearly a half-century after the Gault case began, due process rights remain elusive for thousands of juvenile defendants facing felony charges that could lead to years of incarceration. Attempting to fill the void when possible are the often over-worked juvenile public defenders. But in many jurisdictions, juveniles are not even appointed a defense attorney until after their first hearing — a hearing in which a judge will decide if the youth will be held in detention or released.
In a continuing series beginning today, JJIE will explore the complicated world of juvenile defense — from the difficult job of the juvenile public defender to the jumble of juvenile court systems across the country whose processes ensure many kids never receive representation. At the heart of it all are kids whose lives are indelibly altered by the process of navigating the juvenile court system, with or without legal representation.
A single phone call made from a trailer home in rural Arizona, where 15-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Gault lived with his family, wound up indelibly altering the landscape of juvenile justice in America.