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2016: Recognizing that Kids are Different, Anniversaries of Kent, Miranda, and JDB

Posted in 2016, Across the Country Friday, 22 April 2016

By Brittan Harwell, CFYJ Policy Fellow

The juvenile court was founded in Chicago in 1899 on the ideas that children were different than adults, should not be subject to adult prisons, and rehabilitation should be the main focus of juvenile detention. Over the years, the court has oscillated between treating children as completely different than adults where their trials require no standard procedural protections, or giving children the same floor of procedural protections as adults but then not allowing for their adolescent traits to inform the circumstances of their hearings or culpability.

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court decided a case concerning a 15 year old Morris Kent.  In Kent v. United States the court addressed the fear that, “the child receives the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children."  The court went out of its way to include information about the differences between a child and adult in court. Kent’s case held procedural protections were required when a child is being transferred into the adult system.

Kent has had a lasting legal legacy; several cases expanding or further defining the rights of youth are rooted in the holding from Kent. Following the year after Kent, In re Gault built on Kent’s due process protection of waiver by stating that due process encompasses procedural protections for juveniles in delinquency proceedings including right to notice, confrontation of witnesses, right to counsel, and the right against self-incrimination.  A few years later Kent’s due process reasoning was used in support of finding that jeopardy attaches with a juvenile court conviction for purposes of the double jeopardy prohibition, meaning that children cannot be tried and convicted in both juvenile and adult court for the same charge (Breed v. Jones, USC).  Kent’s reasoning has helped youth in certain jurisdictions assert rights to rehabilitative treatment (Pena v. New York State Div. For Youth), full investigations to support court’s findings (Virgin Islands ex rel. N.G.), and access to all proceedings for a child’s guardian ad litem (Inge v. Slayton,  4th cir.).

Decided the same year, Miranda v. Arizona gave individuals questioned by the police the right to be informed of their rights. The Miranda warnings are known by most people because of their use in TV and movies. Subsequently police went on to give individuals Miranda warnings but there were no specialized warnings for children. The warning was assumed to be age neutral and an adequate procedure to ensure that an individual’s Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination was upheld.

Five years ago in the case of J.D.B  v North Carolina the court finally addressed the relationship between Miranda warnings and children, Justice Sotomayor announcing that,

“It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave. Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that] a child's age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis.”

More and more the Court is considering the effects of age on the application of criminal procedure and juvenile interaction with the criminal justice system. In Kent, the Court touched on the difference between youth and adults in its ruling but the development of brain science and what is known about how differently the adolescent brain works has had a huge impact on Supreme Court treating children differently. Because adolescent brains are different than adults, what actions are appropriate to ensure their constitutional rights are upheld should be different than adults.

While we look back to see how far the court has come in its understanding of juvenile rights, we shouldn’t forget to look forward also and continue to push for juvenile rights. In every state there are still laws that allow for youth to be tried in adult courts. The Supreme Court has established that children are not adults. Not only is treating children both as people who need to be taken care of and people who are mature enough to make life altering confusing, it also does not allow for a system in which we can determine what states should do to protect youths’ constitutional rights.