Gault Changed Juvenile Justice in America, But We Can Still Do Better for Kids

In 1964, a 15-year-old was sentenced to prison until age 21 for allegedly making a prank phone call.

At the time of his arrest and detention, no one told the Arizona teen, Gerald “Jerry” Gault, or his parents why he’d been charged. No witnesses spoke against him in a court of law. No attorney stood up in his defense.

The story seems ludicrous now, especially knowing teens often test boundaries and engage in inappropriate behavior. Yet Gault’s case led to a landmark Supreme Court decision 50 years ago this month that made official what most of us would consider a given: that children, like all Americans, have the right to an attorney, to formal hearings, to due process. That being a minor did not mean being a lesser person in the eyes of the law.

Despite the basic standard set by In re Gault, we often break its promise to our nation’s youth. The anniversary of the decision invites us to examine once more how we approach young people who get in trouble with the law — and to keep striving for a juvenile justice system that doesn’t derail them for life.

We can take small but significant steps in that direction now. For example, young people often lack legal representation after their trial, but their need for an attorney doesn’t end after the gavel falls. They and their families face a minefield of court orders and disciplinary hearings, and small missteps or even the inability to pay fines and fees could result in incarceration, longer stays or placement in solitary confinement. An attorney can help them navigate these challenges while protecting their rights and ensuring youth are treated in an age-appropriate manner.

Yet having an attorney, while critical, isn’t a cure-all for a system that is in dire need of overhaul. Indeed, the juvenile justice system has strayed far from its original intent — namely, to do what is best for kids. Our policies, practices and correctional procedures end up hurting, not helping, young people, pushing them farther off track instead of helping them get back on it. For example, 31 states still lack an age threshold for when a child can be prosecuted, and 21 allow shackling kids in court, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center. Youth detention centers and prisons, which are modeled after adult correctional facilities, exemplify the failure of our system to truly do what is best for youth. These facilities are, simply put, no place for kids.

As Gault affirmed, children deserve the same rights as adults in a court of law. Yet even as we recognize those important, fundamental rights, we once again cannot forget what should be a given: Kids aren’t adults, and we shouldn’t treat them as though they are the same. While young people should face consequences when they make bad choices, those consequences should help them learn from and move past their mistakes, rather than lead them to repeat their missteps.

In short: We need to stop sending kids to youth prisons and replace these ineffective, often abuse-ridden facilities with safe, humane solutions that actually work and keep them within their communities whenever possible. Our goal should be to create juvenile justice systems that allow teens and young adults to develop the relationships and skills that will help them move forward and become productive adults.

The primary goal of juvenile justice should be to help youth develop into responsible members of their community. It should enable young people to build positive, strong connections with adults, including their families and those working in the system. And it should redirect the considerable resources required for youth prisons to community-based alternatives, including programs and staff training focused on turning lives around, rather than punishment.

The anniversary of Gault serves as a reminder that justice isn’t guaranteed unless we remain vigilant, particularly on behalf of our young people. We can’t afford to settle for incremental progress for another 50 years. We risk losing too many young men and women to a failed, expensive and brutal system that neither protects the public nor promotes the best interest of children — or the interests of our families, communities and country.

Patrick McCarthy is president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based private philanthropy.