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Commemorating The 40th Anniversary OF The Landmark Case Of In Re Gault, Et AL

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision of In re Gault in 1967, in which the Court declared that children accused of delinquent acts have a constitutional right to counsel. Before that decision, children accused of delinquency had virtually no legal rights. They were at the mercy of a legal system that often led to unjust results. Gerald Gault's experience illustrates the injustices that often took place.

When he was 15 years old, Gerald was accused of a delinquent act that involved making a nuisance phone call. He was swept up in a juvenile justice system that had almost no procedural safeguards. Basic rights available to adults were denied to him. He was sentenced by the juvenile court to 6 years in his State's Youth Industrial School, with no right to appeal the decision. Fortunately, his parents didn't give up. They filed a writ of habeas corpus for his release.

Gerald's case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which held that proceedings against juveniles must meet the essential requirements of the due process clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. These rights included the right to advance notice of the charges, the right to counsel, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Eventually, the charges against Gerald were dropped, and his case changed the juvenile justice system forever.

In fact, the development of the juvenile justice system was long in coming. Before the 20th century, children as young as 7 years of age could be tried as criminals, and if found guilty, could be sentenced to prison or even to death. The first juvenile court was established just over a century ago in Chicago as a result of the efforts of reformers who were appalled by the denial of rights to young offenders. By 1925, the majority of States had separate courts for juveniles in a system guided by the doctrine of parens patriae, which gave each State the authority to act as a parent for children in need of guidance and protection. Under the doctrine, States were able to provide treatment and rehabilitation or safe conditions of confinement for troubled youth, and the Gault decision guaranteed that juvenile offenders would have basic legal rights.

In the years that followed, numerous improvements have been made to the juvenile justice system. In recent years, however, there has been an alarming escalation in the willingness of States to treat children as adults. Nearly 100,000 children today are incarcerated in juvenile facilities, and they may well be the most vulnerable and defenseless group in our criminal justice system. They are routinely sent to adult prisons where they face significant dangers. Juveniles in adult facilities are five times more likely than those in juvenile facilities to report being sexually assaulted. Even more disturbing, the suicide rate of children in adult prisons is over seven times higher than those in juvenile facilities. Their plight is shameful and unacceptable. Clearly, these children deserve better.

Gerald Gault went on to have a long career in the United States Army, rising to the rank of sergeant. He has become a deeply devoted family man and will celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary 5 days after the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in his case. Who knows what would have happened to Gerald if he had not been given his due process rights and had been locked away instead in a detention center? The anniversary of the Gault decision is a time for all of us to remember that the juvenile justice system is there to protect the rights of the Nation's children, and this resolution enables us to renew our commitment to building on the legacy of that historic decision.

With this resolution, the Senate acknowledges the need for the Nation to recommit to the goals and purposes of this landmark decision to finally achieve the goals set forth in the Gault decision. I am pleased that the resolution has the support of so many organizations and individuals across the country, including the National Juvenile Defender Center, Harvard Law School, the Child Welfare League, the ACLU, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the Center for Children's Law and Policy, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild in Boston, the Children's Law Center of Massachusetts and so many other distinguished individuals fighting for a better justice system for all children in the United States.


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