Skip to main content

Rights of Juvenile Defendants

This timeline tracks the milestones of the rights of juvenile defendants through U.S. history.

1899First Juvenile Court Established

In Cook County, Ill., the first juvenile court in the United States is established. It is founded on the idea that juvenile offenders need protection and treatment, not just punishment. The idea comes from the British justice system’s principle of parens patriae (the State as parent), meaning that the state has a duty to protect children under its care. By 1925, all but two of the states have juvenile courts or probation services. These institutions operate much less formally than their counterparts in the adult judicial system.

1966Due Process Rights For Juvenile Offenders Upheld

In Kent v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that juvenile offenders are entitled to a full hearing before their criminal case can be transferred from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system. In so doing, the Court recognizes that juveniles accused of a crime need as many procedural protections in the justice system as adults do. The Court reaffirms this idea two years later, in another case involving the due process rights of a juvenile facing a sentence in a detention facility.

1967Court Holds Juveniles Entitled To Due Process

The U.S. Supreme Court decides In re Gault, holding that juveniles possess the standard constitutional guarantees of due process. Previously, the juvenile justice system withheld constitutional protections routinely afforded adults. The Court finds that juvenile proceedings must be in line with the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

1970‘Beyond A Reasonable Doubt’ Is Standard In Delinquency Hearings

In the case In re Winship, the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the standard of proof to find guilt in adult criminal proceedings, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” also applies in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

1971Jury Trials Not Required For Juvenile Cases

Although Kent and Winship gave juveniles in criminal cases many of the same constitutional protections as adults, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury in juvenile court.

1974Juvenile Justice System Required To Be Separate

Under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act, new federal regulations require states to keep the juvenile justice system segregated from the adult justice system, and prohibits states from housing in secure detention facilities juveniles arrested for “status” offenses (such as curfew violations or truancy from school). The law creates the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Justice Department to administer grants for programs combating juvenile crime, compile national statistics, fund research on juvenile crime, and implement the federal mandates requiring juveniles to be kept in custody separate from adults.

1975Double Jeopardy Protections For Juveniles Announced

In the case Breed v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that once juveniles are an “adjudicated delinquent” in juvenile court – the equivalent of being found guilty of violating a criminal statute – they cannot then be tried for the same crime in adult criminal court, even if the juvenile court has not yet imposed a sentence. To do so, the Court says, would violate the constitutional protection against “double jeopardy.”

1977Court Allows Publication Of Juvenile’s Identity

In Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains the name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is unconstitutional to prevent publication of the information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling will be made by the court two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company, when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right takes precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1977Publication Of Juvenile’s Name, Photograph Is Upheld

In the case Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains a name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is an unconstitutional restriction on the press to prevent publication of that information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling is made two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company, when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right must take precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1982Offender’s Age Is Mitigating Factor In Imposing Death Penalty

In the case Eddings v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that an offender’s youth is a “mitigating” factor that a jury may take into account when deciding whether to impose the death penalty, but it is not an absolute bar to a death sentence.

1984‘Preventive Detention’ Before Hearing Upheld

In the case Schall v. Martin, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that it is not a constitutional violation to hold a juvenile in a detention facility before a hearing. Even though detention might seem to be “punishment” without any finding of guilt, the Court finds the policy is acceptable because its real purpose is protection of the juvenile and the public.

1985Reasonableness Standard Cited In School Searches

After a student is caught smoking in her high school restroom, her purse is searched by an assistant vice principal who finds evidence that the student is dealing marijuana. The student confesses but appeals her conviction, saying the search was illegal so the evidence was not admissible. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., the U.S. Supreme Court says that the Fourth Amendment applies to public school officials but that a less strict standard applies. Instead of probable cause, school officials may conduct searches based on reasonable suspicion that school rules are being violated. The search must be limited to confirming that suspicion. The Court rules the search of the student’s purse did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

1985‘Boot Camp’ For Juvenile Offenders Introduced

Louisiana introduces the first “boot camp” program as an alternative to jail for juvenile offenders. Taking its lead from military training (and modeling itself on the first boot camp for adult offenders, started in Georgia two years earlier), the boot camp concept seeks to rehabilitate offenders by providing structure and discipline, both mentally and physically. By the end of the 1990s, about 400 boot camps are in operation around the country.

1988Execution Of Juveniles Found Unconstitutional

In Thompson v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that, according to society’s “evolving standards of decency,” it is “cruel and unusual” punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to execute offenders who commit their crimes when under the age of 16. A year later, however, in Stanford v. Kentucky, the court approves executions for defendants who were 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes.

1992Public Attitude Toward Juvenile Offenders Changes

During the 1980s, public perceptions about juvenile offenders and the juvenile justice system begin to change dramatically. Offenders increasingly are viewed as predators who needed punishment, and that the juvenile justice system is too lenient. As a result in the 1990s, state legislatures throughout the country take major steps to change how juvenile justice works. Between 1992 and 1997, virtually every state enacts changes in one or more of the following areas:

    • Making it easier to transfer juveniles to the adult criminal justice system.
    • Giving greater sentencing authority to criminal and juvenile courts.
    • Easing or eliminating confidentiality requirements for juvenile proceedings and records.
    • Giving victims a greater role in juvenile proceedings.

1995Random Drug Testing Of Student Athletes Constitutional

In Vernonia School District v. Acton, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Fourth Amendment is not violated by a school district’s policy that students participating in interscholastic sports must consent to random drug testing. The Court requires that the use of random drug testing requires a fact-specific balancing of a student’s privacy interests with the school’s legitimate interest in protecting students from harm during participation in sports.

2000Landmark Settlement Approved On Juveniles’ Confinement

A federal judge approves the settlement of a lawsuit brought on behalf of youths at the South Dakota State Training School, an incarceration facility. The settlement ends various abusive conditions of confinement, such as the placement of boys and girls in isolation cells for as many as 23 hours a day, for weeks and sometimes months at a time. The settlement also provides for improvements in medical and mental health care for the children.

200114-Year-Old Boys Tried As Adults, Get Long Sentences

In Florida, 14-year-old Lionel Tate is tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing a 6-year-old playmate when Lionel was 12. Lionel insists that the killing was accidental, occurring when he playfully imitated professional wrestling maneuvers. Several months later, Nathaniel Brazill, also 14, is convicted of second-degree murder after being tried as an adult in Florida for shooting his teacher. Nathaniel is sentenced to 28 years in prison without possibility of parole.

2002Random Drug Tests Upheld For Students In Non-Athletic Activities

In Board of Education v. Earls, the U.S. Supreme Court expands its earlier ruling in Vernonia School District v. Acton and finds that an Oklahoma school district’s policy of random drug tests for student participants in non-athletic extracurricular activities also is permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

2010No Life Term Without Parole For Juveniles Guilty Of Crimes Other Than Homicide

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, rejects life sentences without parole for juveniles who are convicted of crimes other than homicide, saying they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling in Graham v. Florida extends the Court’s movement toward treating minors differently from adults. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, says states must provide juveniles who receive lengthy sentences a “meaningful” chance at some point to show they should be released.

2012Justices Restrict Mandatory Life Terms for Juveniles

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, limits the use of mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling says the mandatory sentences are unconstitutional because they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Elena Kagan writes that legal precedents make clear that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty” on those under the age of 18. The justices who dissented say that legislatures, and not courts, should decide what is an appropriate sentence for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling in Miller v. Alabama does not impose a strict ban on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, but the Court’s majority says the “appropriate occasions” for such a penalty “will be uncommon.”

2012Parole Right For Juveniles Sentenced To Life Extended

The U.S. Supreme Court makes retroactive its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama that struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The Court rules, 6-3, that those sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life in prison should have a chance to be resentenced or to argue for parole.