Views from the Bench, 0420 UTBJ, Vol. 33, No. 2. 16

AuthorBy The Honorable Chadian P. Bazzelle
PositionVol. 33 2 Pg. 16

Views from the Bench

Vol. 33 No. 2 Pg. 16

Utah Bar Journal

April, 2020

March, 2020

The Changing Landscape of Juvenile Justice

By The Honorable Chadian P. Bazzelle

“Even when laws have been written down, they ought not always to remain unaltered.”

– Aristotle, Politics

It seems Aristotle had it right. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the law is its constant evolution to keep up with the knowledge, needs, and development of humankind. Utah’s juvenile justice law has recently undergone such an evolution. Beginning in 2017 with the passage of House Bill 239 Juvenile Justice Amendments, Utah policy makers have been trying to address areas in which the law may better handle juvenile delinquency. Like all reforms, the transition has not been painless or without controversy. But in that special Utah way, the many diverse factions of our system have been able to set aside their differences and work together to achieve a vision. In order to gain some perspective on Utah’s most recent reform, a brief examination of history is helpful.

Once upon a time, delinquent youths in the United States were treated not as children, but as small adults. Children as young as seven years old could be tried in criminal courts, even for petty offenses such as begging, theft, or ungovernability. Sentences for youthful offenders were generally indistinguishable from adult sentences and could include prison time and even death. The first juvenile court in the nation was established in 1899 in Chicago as a part of changes sweeping the nation to deal with a myriad of social problems. At the time, attitudes about juvenile delinquency were also evolving. Recognizing that children were developmentally different from adults, reformers believed that children who committed crimes should not be treated like adult criminals. Because children are less mature and have less judgment than adults, they were deemed to be less culpable for their criminal behavior. Reformers argued that delinquent youths should be educated and rehabilitated rather than punished, and that mixing youthful offenders with adult criminal populations was needlessly harsh and would teach and encourage additional criminal behavior. These principles have survived the test of time and continue to be the cornerstones of the juvenile court. However, with little legal precedent and regulation, there was vast variation in early juvenile courts on how to deal with youthful offenders.

By the early 1900’s, critics of the juvenile court system began to question its fairness and effectiveness, citing the informality of the proceedings and lack of due process protections, such as access to legal representation and the right to a trial. It was argued, and rightfully so, that the lack of these basic protections resulted in discrimination and illegal incarceration. In the 1960’s the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that called into question the fundamental fairness of the juvenile court. In the 1966 watershed case of Kent v. United States, Justice Abe Fortas said, While there can be no doubt of the original laudable purpose of juvenile courts, studies and critiques in recent years raise serious questions as to whether actual performance measures well enough against theoretical purpose to make tolerable the immunity of the process from the reach of constitutional guaranties applicable to adults.… There is evidence, in fact, that there may be grounds for concern 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.

Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541, 555–56 (1966).

A year later, the Supreme Court underscored its position in the case of In re Gault. Fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was on probation for stealing a wallet from a woman’s purse when he was accused of making an obscene phone call. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 4–5 (1967). The maximum sentence for a similarly situated adult would have been a $50 fine or two months in jail, but Gault was sentenced to a state reformatory for an indeterminate period that could last until his twenty-first birthday. Id. at 7–9. Gault had been detained by police overnight without notification to his parents. Id. at 5. He appeared in juvenile court the next day without his parents being informed of the charges against him, without an attorney, and without being advised of his legal rights. Id. at 5–6. A probation officer filed a petition alleging that Gault was a delinquent minor in need of care and custody of the court. Id. No witnesses were called, there was no sworn testimony, and there was no written record of court proceedings. Id. Justice Fortas again spoke up for juveniles, saying “neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone.” Id at 1.

Following the Supreme Court’s lead, juvenile courts across the nation put in place procedural safeguards, giving juveniles many rights similar to those of adults charged with a crime. Along with protecting their constitutional rights, the juvenile court has long sought to protect children from the stigmatization of criminal activity. For example, delinquency offenses in Utah are considered civil rather than criminal cases. Petitions alleging an offense identify a criminal act, as outlined by the Utah Criminal Code, followed by the statement “if committed by an adult.” (i.e. Johnny is within the jurisdiction of the court because it is alleged he committed Assault, a Class B Misdemeanor if committed by an adult.) When a child is found to have committed an offense, it is considered an “adjudication” rather than a “conviction” and the child’s consequence is called a “disposition” rather than a “sentence.” With this special language, Utah’s Juvenile Court has tried to distinguish youthful misbehavior, even serious misbehavior, from adult criminal activity. The juvenile court has always sought to rehabilitate children and help them to grow into upstanding citizens through a balance of accountability, restitution, and skill-building...

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