Juvenile Preventive Detention Law Upheld

By Scott, Elizabeth S. | Developments in Mental Health Law, January-June 1984 | Go to article overview

Juvenile Preventive Detention Law Upheld


Scott, Elizabeth S., Developments in Mental Health Law


The United States Supreme Court recently upheld a New York statute which authorizes Family Court judges to order into detention juveniles accused of crimes where there is a "serious risk" that the youth may commit another crime before the adjudicatory hearing. The case, Schall v. Martin, (1) is a landmark decision because it is the first time the Court has given approval to a law which allows a judge to order pre-trial incarceration of an individual on the basis of a prediction of future dangerousness. All states permit courts to hold defendants without bail prior to trial for the purpose of assuring the presence at trial of those defendants who may otherwise be unlikely to appear. However, taking away the liberty of an individual who has not yet been proved guilty of any crime based on the judgment that before the adjudication he will commit other crimes is quite different and raises serious constitutional issues.

In Schall, the Supreme Court emphasized the unique legal status of juveniles as justifying the preventive detention law. The New York law requires that the judge consider the best interests of the child in ordering detention, and the Supreme Court was satisfied that juvenile detention is a legitimate exercise of the states' patens patriae authority in that it serves to "protect ... the juvenile from his own folly." (2) This would include protecting the youth from physical injury from police or victim confrontation and from the "downward spiral of criminal activity into which peer pressure may lead the child." (3) The Court minimized the interests which juveniles may have in freedom from institutional restraint, noting that unlike adults, juveniles "are always in some form of custody." (4) The dissent attacked the Court's equation of incarceration in a detention center with parental custody.

The Court refused to accept the defendant's argument that preventive detention is punishment, despite evidence of grim conditions and peer group brutality in the detention centers. The majority was also unmoved by evidence that many youths who were detained for up to seventeen days were never adjudicated delinquent and in effect thus were punished for an offense which was never proved. …

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