The Constitutional Rights of Children:
In re Gault and Juvenile Justice

The Constitutional Rights of Children:

Author: David S. Tanenhaus
Publisher: Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011. 152p.
Reviewer: Patricia Cantara | March 2012

In re Gault has set precedent in the juvenile justice system since 1967. Fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault was sentenced to six years at Fort Grant, a juvenile facility, for allegedly making an obscene phone call to a neighbor who at the time was not required to testify against him. During the process of arrest through the trial, several due process rights were violated leading the Gaults to appeal the case. With an 8 to 1 decision the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile proceedings should be given many of the same due process rights as those of adult proceedings. David S. Tanenhaus’ The Constitutional Rights of Children: In re Gault and Juvenile Justice does a great job in providing a detailed description of the legal landscape underpinning juvenile justice history. Tanenhaus divides his book into three parts, covering desert justice, which examines the pre history of the case, legal liberalism, and just deserts. His historical portrayal of the fight for due process has been “the first book length study to deliver a written examination of the most important juvenile rights case of the twentieth century”.

Part I, desert justice, recounts the relevant history preceding Gault. Tanenhaus discusses juvenile justice in post-World War II Arizona (the state having original jurisdiction in the case); thus revealing two competing thoughts: one, progressive juvenile justice focusing on psychological conditions; and two, desert juvenile justice focusing on corporal punishment and imprisonment. This historical and contextual background enables the reader to grasp the cultural views of the time, and sets the scene for what was to come in the case of young Gerald Gault.

Part II, dealing with legal liberalism, then shifts the focus to the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) battle in New York City with the desert justice ideology. This ideology the ACLU claimed, violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Tanenhaus presents a clear image of the revolution for due process rights in juvenile proceedings. His vivid portrayal allows the reader to feel the tension between and passion among those for and against desert justice.
Then Part III, just deserts, discusses the legacy of the Gault decision and its’ impact on our criminal justice system. Tanenhaus’ chronological portrayal of the historical development of the juvenile justice system permits even those without legal and criminal justice backgrounds to understand just how and why the juvenile justice system has progressed in the way it has over the past half century. He concludes with an epilogue about the Redding v. Safford 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision. This was a case in which a young girl, Savana Redding, was forced to undress before school authorities on the suspicion of having prescription painkillers in her underwear. Tanenhaus includes this case in order to prove that over 40 years post Gault and children continue to fight for due process rights. He states that “the Supreme Court, as the history of Gault reveals, has made constitutional promises to children but must rely on other state actors to keep them” such as those in schools.

Overall, the case of In re Gault is a historical landmark case involving the due process rights of juveniles in judicial proceedings. David Tanenhaus illustrates the contextual environment of juvenile justice prior to and post Gault in order to allow the reader to better understand juvenile justice history and how it has been shaped by a seemingly trivial event. This book can serve as supplementary reading for discussions on the development of the juvenile justice system. By and large, it is enjoyable and a great read for those looking to understand the history of constitutional rights, due process and juvenile justice.

Patricia Cantara is a Ph.D. Student, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

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