Reforming the Juvenile Court System: 1962 to mid 1980’s

Reforming the Juvenile Court System: 1962 to mid 1980’s

By Maura Downey

This video captures the essence of the times with social reforms and emerging equal right acts during Juvenile Court Reforms in the United States:


As times changed from the 1950’s and into the 1970’s, the acknowledgement of the effect that one’s environment can have upon an individual began to grow. Scholarly factors, such as the psychological school of behaviorism, and sociological studies both posed arguments towards the fact that external factors, such as ones environment, can strongly impact, if not control an individuals behavior. Due to this heightened awareness of the differential social treatment based upon race, economic status, and other social systems, court cases began to determine how the Juvenile Justice system functioned, giving new rights to minors that previously belonged only to adults.

Famous Court Cases

  • Kent v. U.S. (1966)

    • At the age of 14, Morris A. Kent Jr. was apprehended by the Juvenile Court of the District of Columbia in 1959 for housebreakings and attempted purse snatching. Later, in 1961, Kent was arrested for breaking and entering, rape, and robbery at the age of 16. During his interrogation and detention, Kent received psychological tests and was deemed a “psychopath,” with the suggestion of hospitalization for psychiatric observation.
    • The Juvenile Court judge held no hearing, and did not rule on any psychological findings nor any motions towards providing Kent with assistance of counsel. Instead, the judge entered an order, for Kent to be held for trial under the adult criminal court of the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
    • Kent was sentenced to serve a total of up to 90 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution.
    • Kent’s counsel ordered a reversal of the sentence, based upon the grounds that Kent was denied basic rights he would have if an adult, such as his miranda rights, a determiniation of probable cause, and that Kent was interrogated by the police in the absence of counsel or parent.
    • The Supreme Court decided that remitting Kent to the adult District Court was invalid and negated Kent’s previous convictions (Kent v. United States 1966).

Because of Kent v. United States 1966, the juvenile legal system increased constitutional protections towards minors and treating them as full citizens.

  • In re Gault (1967)

    • Gerald Francis Gault was arrested at the age of 15 for making an “indecent telephone call.” Neither his mother nor father were notified of his arrest.
    • Upon his hearing, no one was sworn in, no transcript nor recording was made, and the complainant was not present. Neither memorandum nor “record of the substance of the proceeding was prepared for Gault’s hearing.
    • The judge committed Gault as a juvenile delinquent to the State Industrial School until the age of 21, “unless sooner discharged.”
    • Upon repeal, the Supreme Court dismissed Gault’s commitment to the State Industrial school based upon the violation of the 14th Amendment: Gault was denied the right to an attorney, that Gault had not been notified of the charges against him, and that he did not have a chance to confront his accuser (In re Gault 1967).

After In re Gault, the court system began to recognize that delinquent offenders must be given the same due process rights as adults.

Gerald Gault being trained in automotive work in 1967

  • In re Winship (1970)

    •  The Supreme Court ruled that in all juvenile court proceedings, all offensive charges must be proved beyond reasonable doubt (In re Winship 1970).

Arguments against IQ and delinquency correlates & investigations into differing court systems:

One particularly interesting study on IQ and delinquency was one run by Nathan Caplan and Lawrence Siebert, which followed the distribution of juvenile first offender IQ’s in Cuyahoga County, Cleveland, Ohio, from 1929 to 1963. After running data analyses, Caplan and Siebert found that over the previous 34 years, IQ scores had actually increased, and ascribed the increase to social conditions “favorable to intellectual growth and development” for the adolescents of the county (Caplan & Siebert 1964). The implications of this study is that adolescents with significantly higher IQ’s were still committing crimes, while the rate of adolescent crime had not changed. This indicates that an individual’s intelligence is not a direct factor to determining whether they will live a life of crime, or remain a contributing citizen (Caplan & Siebert 1964).

Other studies were conducted to collect empirical data about discrepancies and prejudices between differing juvenile court systems during the 70’s. While many studies produced evidence supporting the court’s bias towards ethnic and socio-economical stats, others claimed that the evidence supported neither socioeconomic status, race, nor court system caused any particular bias towards the juvenile offender. The studies ultimately suggested that neither the due process court system nor the therapeutic court system had any overt differing biases when dealing with juvenile offenders (Cohen & Kleugel 1978).

Media References (in order of appearance):

YouTube video:

BBCMotionGalleryNYLA (Director). (2009, June 08). The civil rights era from BBC Motion Gallery [Video]. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

Gault image:

Constitution-Connected Youth. (2011, May 26). [Gerald Gault being trained in automotive work in 1967]. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

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