Gerald Gault was but a 15-year-old child, a child sentenced to incarceration until he turned 21 for something as trivial as making a prank phone call to his neighbor.
Gerald was a child without an attorney.
He was without knowledge of his charges.
He was without the ability to question his neighbor.
He was without the right to remain silent.
And he was without the ability to appeal the juvenile court’s ruling.
Had he been an adult, Gerald would have had all of these constitutional rights and more.
Had he been an adult, Gerald faced a maximum of a $50 fine and two months in jail.
But he was not an adult. He was a child.
Simply put, the Bill of Rights was irrelevant and did not apply merely because of Gerald’s age.
Courts attempted to justify the denial of these, his most basic of rights, by saying that children are different and juvenile courts are different.
Those differences somehow made it OK to strip children of constitutional protections and treat children as something legally less than everyone else.
Yet it is precisely because of Gerald Gault that all children today have these rights.
May 15 marks the 50th anniversary of In re Gault, the landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court established that the Bill of Rights applies to everyone – yes, even to children.
The Supreme Court opinion said it best, writing that “Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”
“Juvenile Court history has again demonstrated that unbridled discretion, however benevolently motivated, is frequently a poor substitute for principle and procedure,” Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the legal opinion for the court, before quoting legal scholar Roscoe Pound. “The powers of the Star Chamber were a trifle in comparison with those of our juvenile courts.”
When a child is up against the government with all of its power and all of its resources, that child needs, deserves and is guaranteed the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
These constitutional protections form the basis of what is referred to as “due process.”
“Due process of law is the primary and indispensable foundation of individual freedom,” the Supreme Court said in In re Gault. “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 Supreme Court not only recognized that children have these constitutional protections, the Supreme Court also recognized that children are more vulnerable and are, in fact, in greater need of constitutional protections.
For instance, the Court noted well-documented cases of false confessions, including false confessions by children, who are susceptible to coercion and police tactics because of their age and maturity.
“That which would leave a man cold and unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a lad in his early teens,” the Supreme Court quoted from an earlier court ruling.
So why commemorate some legal opinion from 50 years ago? Why are celebrations being held in the legal community throughout the country? And, put bluntly, why should we care?
Well, the answer is simple. Times have changed, but children have not.
Children today stand accused of committing all sorts of offenses, some of which are amplified and distorted through social media and news media.
Children also face tremendous consequences if it is proven that they committed these acts.
And children physically look older and appear to act older than their age.
But psychologically, children are still children. As parents, we know it, and brain science has proven it. Children think and act like children.
It is now widely acknowledged and accepted that the prefrontal cortex – that area of the brain responsible for impulse control – continues to develop well beyond the teenage years.
In remembering the monumental shift that took place 50 years ago, we also remember the importance of these rights today.
It is absolutely critical that children not only have constitutional rights, but that they are fully aware of these rights and that they exercise these rights.
Whether it be in the sheriff’s office interview room or in the courtroom, children must know their rights and understand the serious ramifications of giving up these rights.
The lessons of Gault and the rights guaranteed by this court decision are no less relevant and no less critical 50 years later.
The writer – a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle from 2005 to 2009 – is an assistant public defender for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.