Rethinking the Road to Gault: Limiting Social Control in the Juvenile Court, 1957-1972

Although almost all existing scholarship considers the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in In re Gault, which provided certain procedural rights to juveniles, to be the start of juvenile justice reform, that view ignores substantive discussion and legislative change preceding the Court’s ruling. This paper relies heavily on previously untapped archival sources to examine the beliefs and accomplishments of lawyers, judges, probation officers, and professors who led and resisted change in the administration of juvenile justice before and after Gault. These sources show that reformers advocated for a reduction in the court’s jurisdictional scope, a restriction on institutional dispositions, and an increase in procedural formalities (including an increase of the burden of proof, the rights to counsel, notice, and confrontation of witnesses, and the right to remain silent) concurrently and consistently throughout the period from 1957 to 1972. These reforms should be understood together, as means to limit the scope of courts’ authority over children whose non-criminal behavior deviated from middle-class social norms. This limitation of social control is consistent with contemporary limitations in adult criminal law, which sought to restrict judges’ discretion and increase rehabilitative services for adult offenders. Through both revision of substantive law and procedural formalization, reformers sought to transform the juvenile court into an institution that treated young law violators with dignity and allowed non-law violators to live their lives free from the social controls of others. In an age of incarceration, this paper demands a reconsideration of the juvenile court’s purpose.