Why (Jury-Less) Juvenile Courts Are Unconstitutional

By Thomas, Suja A.; Stich, Collin | Emory Law Journal, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Why (Jury-Less) Juvenile Courts Are Unconstitutional


Thomas, Suja A., Stich, Collin, Emory Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

Currently, juveniles accused of crimes in this country have fewer constitutional rights than adults. Perhaps most significantly, in nearly all juvenile proceedings where there is a trial, only one person-a judge-not a jury-decides if the minor whom the state has accused of wrongdoing is guilty of a crime.1 If the judge convicts, the child could be incarcerated for several years.2 This conviction of a minor by a judge could result in a sentence that is longer than the one served by an adult convicted of the same crime.3 Also, the conviction by the judge could adversely contribute to the length of any future incarcerations of the individual both as a child and as an adult.

In spite of these problems, there is no movement to change this entrenched system. But constitutional reasons exist to do so. The Sixth Amendment, which sets forth the right to a jury trial, states in part that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a ... trial, by an impartial jury."4 The Supreme Court has held that the Sixth Amendment, along with the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees the right to a jury trial in criminal prosecutions under state law.5 In deciding that criminal defendants have a right to a jury trial, the Court has emphasized that the trial by jury is a right "fundamental to the American scheme ofjustice."6

Notwithstanding this sentiment, the Supreme Court has held that minors do not hold the constitutional right to a jury trial during juvenile proceedings.7 In other words, minors tried in juvenile courts for the same crimes as adults cannot demand a jury trial under the U.S. Constitution like their adult counterparts. Without significant analysis, the Court has reasoned in part that juvenile proceedings are rehabilitative in nature and thus are not "criminal prosecutions" within the Sixth Amendment.8 Many scholars have disagreed, arguing that any compelling distinctions between the juvenile system and the adult system do not continue to exist; because the separate system for juveniles has strayed from its original rehabilitative focus and towards a more punitive function similar to the adult system, juveniles should possess the same right to a jury trial as adults.9

The debate over whether the juvenile system is rehabilitative is misplaced, however, because, regardless of its current rehabilitative or penological purpose, juveniles have a right to a jury trial. The Supreme Court has previously held that the right to a jury trial is based on history.10 To determine whether a jury trial right exists, the historical divisions of authority between judges and juries in England and America at the time of the ratification of the Sixth Amendment are examined.11 Under these systems, judges and juries balanced one another.12 Judges instructed the jury on the law, and juries decided facts. Judges-who were selected by the king or royal governor-were not given fact-finding authority because, for example, they could be corrupt or could disfavor certain people whom the government had prosecuted.13

At the time of the adoption of the Sixth Amendment, under these English and American systems, adults and juveniles who were accused of crimes were treated in the same manner.14 They possessed the right to a jury trial.15 Subsequent proposed English legislative reform to lessen or eliminate the right to a jury trial for minors confirms that English juveniles possessed the right to a jury trial, and later legislation in the states also fortifies that American minors held the right to a jury trial at the founding.16 Moreover, specifically at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, American juveniles held the right to a jury trial.17

Although the Supreme Court has exhibited some smattering of awareness of juveniles' historical right to a jury trial,18 it has denied the right to a jury trial based on three concepts related to the rehabilitation of children. First, because of states' rehabilitative purposes in creating juvenile courts, it has concluded that juvenile proceedings are not criminal prosecutions within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment, and therefore the right to a jury trial is irrelevant. …

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