Before the creation of the juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois in 1899, children were treated as adults by the court system. These new specialized courts; however, recognized that children, due to their immaturity, are less culpable and more inclined to change than their adult counterparts. With this in mind, the focus of the juvenile court system became one of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Another contributing factor to this model of operations was the belief that crime was more of a social problem than a criminal one. When the juvenile justice system was created, it was meant to be a system of exchange whereby minors traded the rights afforded to adults for more leniency. This exchange upheld the principle focus of the system-that of teaching youthful offenders how to stay out of trouble.
The case of Kent v. United States was one of several important decisions of the Supreme Court. In this case the court regularized the process by which children would be transferred to adult court. It also held that when juveniles were transferred away from the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, they were to receive the same rights afforded to adults. The decision of the Court began a new trend of equal treatment under the law for a whole group of citizens who had previously been denied constitutional protections. In 1971, this trend would change with the court’s ruling in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania.
The Facts of the Case
Morris Kent Jr. was fourteen years old when he first encountered the juvenile justice system in the District of Columbia. In 1959, he was charged with breaking into several houses in addition to purse snatching. He was put on probation and released into the custody of his mother. Two years later on September 5, 1961, Kent again found himself under the authority of the juvenile court system. This stemmed from an incident where, on September 2, he broke into a woman’s apartment and raped her after robbing her of her wallet. The primary evidence against him was latent fingerprints that he left behind in the victim’s apartment.
On September 5, Kent was arrested and transported to police headquarters for interrogation. According to later reports, neither his mother nor the juvenile court were notified. During the course of seven hours of interrogation, Kent confessed to breaking into several other houses. Later that same night, he was transferred to the Receiving Home for Children but was returned to the police station the next morning for more questioning.
Once she became aware that her son was in custody, Mrs. Kent hired a lawyer to represent her son. Along with the lawyer, the Kent’s met with the Service Director of the Juvenile Court. They were told that because he was sixteen years of age, Kent might be transferred to adult court where he would stand trial for his crimes. His lawyer, petitioned the court for a psychiatric evaluation of his client and for access to any social reports regarding Kent in the court’s possession. Both of these requests were granted.
Meanwhile, Kent was back in the Receiving Home where he remained for a period of one week without being officially informed of the charges against him. Once he was transferred to adult court, this matter became a violation of his Constitutional rights. While he was residing at the Receiving Home, Kent’s lawyer had him examined by two psychiatrists and a psychologist to determine his mental state and his competency to stand trial. After a finding of severe psychopathology, the lawyer filed a petition for his client to receive treatment in a mental facility. This request was also granted.
At the same time, and without a hearing, the juvenile court judge waived the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and transferred the case to adult court. Kent was tried and found guilty of all charges except the rape charge where he was acquitted by reason of insanity. The rationale was that the rape was a by- product of mental disease. He was sentenced to ninety years in prison. Before going to prison, Kent received treatment at St. Elizabeth’s hospital as required in the District of Columbia when a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyer appealed his sentence but the court of appeals affirmed (Find Law -For Legal Professionals, 2010). In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that the waiver of jurisdiction by the juvenile court was invalid. The case was reversed and remanded back to the District Court for a rehearing on its validity.
Kent’s lawyer petitioned the court to vacate his client’s sentence because of the errors of the juvenile court but since Kent was now twenty-one years old and outside the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the request was denied (Kent v. United States). Instead, the Court grounded its decision to remand in the validity of the waiver of juvenile court jurisdiction.
The Kent case was a precursor to that of In Re Gault which was decided the next year. Justice Fortas expressed several issues surrounding this case. In passing, he noted, “These contentions raise problems of substantial concerns as to the construction of and compliance with the Juvenile Court Act. They also suggest basic issues as to the justifiability of affording a juvenile less protection than is accorded to adults suspected of criminal offenses…However, because we remand the case on account of the procedural error with respect to waiver of jurisdiction, we do not pass upon these questions” (Davis, Scott, Wadlington, & Whitebread, 2004).
The importance of this case is the court ruled that in cases involving consideration of transfer to adult court, the following criteria must be met: 1). The juvenile is entitled to a hearing; 2). Counsel for the juvenile is entitled to access to social records used by the court to make its decision and 3). A statement explaining the court’s decision must be included in the transfer order.
(2004). Judicial Transfer by the Juvenile Court. In S. M. Davis, E. S. Scott, W. Wadlington, & C. H. Whitebread, Children In The Legal System- Case and Materials Third Edition (pp. 961-962). New York: Foundation Press.
Find Law -For Legal Professionals. (2010). Retrieved June 18, 2010, from Find Law: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=383&invol=541
Kent v. United States. (n.d.). Retrieved June 19, 2010, from Cornell University Law School: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0383_0541_ZO.html