In 1967, the United States Supreme Court transformed the juvenile justice system with its decision in In Re Gault. Now, three years later in March 1970, the juvenile system was once again facing substantial change. In the case of In Re Winship, important questions were raised regarding the rights of juveniles. The question before the court was whether juveniles facing charges that could warrant incarceration should be convicted merely on the preponderance of the evidence or should guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. At the time of this decision, the majority of state statutes deemed that proving allegations by a preponderance of the evidence was sufficient. This would be the first time the Supreme Court held that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a requirement in proceedings where a juvenile may be found delinquent for an act that would be considered a crime if he or she were an adult.
One aspect of the Winship case that is often overlooked is that prior to addressing the questions before it, the Court held that the Constitution requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal proceedings conducted in state court as a matter of due process of law. This decision went beyond the guarantees provided by the Constitution since the standard of reasonable doubt is not specified within the Constitution but, has rather been accepted both in common law and traditionally by the Court for the purpose of determining guilt. This standard has been viewed as necessary for due process and the fair treatment of both adults and juveniles alike.
Facts of the Case
Samuel Winship, who lived in New York, was twelve years old when he was arrested and charged under the New York Family Court Act with breaking into a woman’s locker and stealing $112 from her pocketbook. If he had been an adult at the time he committed his crime, his actions would have constituted larceny. Relying on the standard of proof set forth in Section 744(b) of the New York Family Court Act, the Court found Winship to be delinquent by a preponderance of the evidence even though the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. For his crime, Winship was sentenced to eighteen months in a juvenile training facility with possible extensions to his commitment until his eighteenth birthday. This meant that he could serve as long as six years.
When he appealed the Court’s finding of delinquency to the New York Supreme Court, he challenged the constitutionality of the New York Family Court Act. Winship also claimed that because the court found him to be delinquent based on the preponderance of evidence standard instead of beyond a reasonable doubt, he was denied due process. He went on to appeal his case to the New York Court of Appeals after his claims were denied by the New York Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals upheld the decisions of the lower courts.
Prior to hearing this case, the Supreme Court first made its interest in this area known in Kent v. United States (1966). In Kent, the majority reasoned that if a juvenile who was tried in the informal juvenile courts faced incarceration without the protections of due process as afforded to adults, he would likely face the worst of both worlds. This decision led to a debate between Justices Black and Harlan that continued with the Gault decision the next year and became even more heated in Winship.
The Opinion of the Court
When it came to deciding if the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” applies to juvenile proceedings, the Court held in a 5 to 3 decision that yes it does. The rationale of the court was that by using the customary standard of “preponderance of the evidence” to find juveniles delinquent, juveniles were not being protected against having their fate incorrectly decided because of factual errors. The Court also declared that the difference in age between juveniles and adults is not enough cause to warrant the difference in the standards of proof when both, if convicted, stand to lose their freedom as a consequence of their crimes. This sentiment was expressed in Justice Brennan’s opinion when he stated, “We therefore hold, in agreement with Chief Judge Fuld in dissent in the Court of Appeals, ‘that, where a 12-year-old child is charged with an act of stealing which renders him liable to confinement for as long as six years, then, as a matter of due process … the case against him must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Justice Brennan wrote the opinion of the Court with Justices White, Douglas, Marshall and Harlan concurring. Justices Burger, Black and Steward dissented. The Winship decision proved to be controversial in many ways. As previously mentioned, Justices Black and Harlan continued their debate from In Re Gault. There was also concern that the juvenile justice system would be abolished and the days of the pre-juvenile court would once again see daylight. This concern was expressed by newly appointed Chief Justice Burger in his dissent in which he echoed the predictions that Justice Stewart had made in Gault and speculated the possibility of the juvenile courts losing their informality and instead becoming too much like adult courts. According to Justice Burger,” What the juvenile court system needs is not more, but less, of the trappings of legal procedure and judicial formalism; the juvenile court system requires breathing room and flexibility in order to survive, if it can survive, the repeated assaults from this Court.”
The impact of the Winship decision on the criminal justice system was twofold. First, it upheld the decision of the Court in Gault that when juveniles are accused of a crime, they are entitled to the same constitutional rights afforded to adults accused of a crime. It also provided that a defendant, whether in state or federal court, cannot be convicted unless his guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
U.S. Supreme Court. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358.World Book Advanced. Retrieved 8 July 2010. http://photo.pds.org:5005/advanced/supremecourt?id=sp179953-3
(2004). Testing the Preises of Gault: Winship and McKeiver. In S. M. Davis, E. S. Scott, W. Wadlington, & C. H. Whitebread, Children in the Legal System: Cases and Materials 3rd edition (pp. 886-887). New York: Foundation Press.