By: Lianne Peterson

The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is considered a fundamental part of a fair trial in adult criminal proceedings.[1] However, in juvenile delinquency proceedings, juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial, making the judge the sole determiner of one’s guilt.[2] Therefore, an adult who commits a crime would be entitled to a jury of their peers, but a minor who is charged with the exact same crime is not entitled to a jury trial.[3] The Supreme Court determined that “the juvenile court proceeding has not yet been held to be a ‘criminal prosecution,’ within the meaning and reach of the Sixth Amendment,” meaning that juvenile proceedings are neither criminal nor civil proceedings.[4]Instead, the Court views juvenile proceedings as “rehabilitative.”[5] Despite the Supreme Court’s views, the federal government and most states define juvenile delinquency as the commission of a criminal act by someone who was under eighteen at the time of the act.[6] The Supreme Court’s failure to find juvenile delinquency proceedings as criminal proceedings allows state and federal courts to violate juveniles’ Sixth Amendment rights.

In spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in McKeiver, ten states have determined that juveniles in delinquency proceedings have a constitutional right to a jury: Alaska, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.[7] Additionally, eight more states allow juveniles the right to a jury trial under specific circumstances.[8] Even in states where juveniles may pursue a trial by jury under state law, jury trials for juveniles remain extremely uncommon.[9]

At its foundation, the purpose of a separate juvenile court system was to “intervene in the lives of youthful offenders, diverting them from the more punitive criminal courts, and encouraging rehabilitation based on the juveniles’ needs.”[10] In the 1950s and 1960s, the juvenile court system shifted to operate more closely to the adult court system and over time lost its focus on rehabilitation.[11] This resulted in an increased number of juveniles who were transferred to adult facilities and the adult criminal justice system.[12] Throughout the late 60s, a series of Supreme Court decisions extended several procedural protections to juvenile proceedings after recognizing the similarity to adult proceedings.[13]In 1971, the Court issued the McKeiver decision, refusing to extend jury trials to juvenile proceedings and halting the extension of constitutional procedural safeguards for juveniles.[14]

Scholars argue that juvenile courts today do not function as rehabilitative, and instead replicate adult criminal courts.[15] The Supreme Court’s pre-McKeiver decisions also recognized the similarities to adult criminal proceedings, but ultimately decided they were not the same.[16] Rather than emphasizing the rehabilitation of the minor, many juvenile courts now place more emphasis on protection of the public.[17] In fact, when evidence is comparable, it is easier to convict minors in juvenile court than in criminal court, because criminal court requires juries to apply the reasonable doubt standard more consistently.[18] However, assuming that the goal of juvenile courts remains rehabilitation, as stated in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, implementing jury trials does not necessarily conflict with the rehabilitative goals of the court since juries could implement rehabilitative sentences.[19]

One must consider what a jury of peers looks like for a juvenile, since juveniles cannot be compelled to jury service. Some scholars argue that a jury of one’s peers only encompasses a cross-section of the community and that there is no requirement that juries consist of jurors in a particular age group.[20] Since the 1990s, various jurisdictions have experimented with teen courts, which are designed as an alternative to the juvenile justice system. In teen courts, juveniles, typically first-time offenders, receive sanctions from their peers that generally consist of community service, restitution, and a curfew.[21] Teens who do not complete the teen court requirements must return to regular juvenile delinquency proceedings.[22] While the popularity of teen courts has increased in recent decades, only a few studies have attempted to measure their effectiveness, and these studies have not produced enough data to draw conclusions.[23]Regardless of the method, juveniles need additional procedural safeguards to ensure that their Sixth Amendment rights are not violated in juvenile delinquency proceedings. Providing juveniles with the option for jury trials, particularly in felony and misdemeanor proceedings, could ensure the fairer application of Sixth Amendment rights and does not need to conflict with the court’s rehabilitative goals.

[1] U.S. Const. Amend. VI.

[2] See McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, 545 (1971) (holding that the entirety of the Sixth Amendment, including the right to a jury trial, does not apply to juvenile proceedings).

[3] See generally Suja A. Thomas & Collin Stich, Why (Jury-less) Juvenile Courts Are Unconstitutional, 69 Emory L.J.273 (2019) (challenging the Supreme Court’s decision that juveniles are not entitled to jury trials).

[4] McKeiver, 403 U.S. at 541.

[5] See id. at 539, 541 (explaining that juvenile courts use more diagnostic and rehabilitative services than adult criminal court).

[6] See 18 U.S.C. § 5031; Juvenile Law Center, Youth in the Justice System: An Overview, (providing an overview of the juvenile court system).

[7] National Juvenile Defender Center, Juvenile Right to Jury Trial Chart, (outlining the states and circumstances in which juveniles may have the right to trial by jury).

[8] See id.

[9] See Janet E. Ainsworth, Re-Imagining Childhood and Reconstructing the Legal Order: The Case for Abolishing the Juvenile Court, 69 N.C. L. Rev. 1083, 1122 (1991).

[10] See Clyde Lemon, “Jury of My Peers”: The Significance of a Racially

Representative Jury for Juveniles in Adult Court, 5 Barry Univ. Child & Fam. L. J. 97, 98 (2017) (providing a historical account of the juvenile court system).

[11] See id. at 99 (noting there was a stark change in opinion and approach to juvenile offenders beginning in the mid 20th century).

[12] See id. at 99-101 (explaining the introduction and use of the waiver system, allowing juvenile offenders to be transferred to adult court much easier than before).

[13] See Thomas & Stich, supra note 1 at 285 (outlining the history of Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile proceedings). See also In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970) (holding that a reasonable doubt standard must also be applied in juvenile proceedings); In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967) (holding the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to juvenile proceedings); Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966) (determining that juveniles waived into the adult system must receive due process). See generally Martin R. Gardner, Punitive Juvenile Justice and Public Trials by Jury: Sixth Amendment Applications in a Post-McKeiver World, 91 Neb. L. Rev. 1 (2012) (providing a history of juvenile court proceedings and explaining the impact of McKeiver).

[14] See Thomas & Stich, supra note 1 at 285.

[15] See Barry C. Feld, The Constitutional Tension Between Apprendi and McKeiver: Sentence Enhancements Based on Delinquency Convictions and the Quality of Justice in Juvenile Courts, 38 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1111, 1224 (2003) (concluding jury trials for juveniles may help mitigate the negative consequences resulting from juveniles’ lack of procedural protections compared to similarly situated adults).

[16] See Gardner, supra note 13 at 27-30 (explaining that the Supreme Court recognized in Gault that “the effects of juvenile dispositions are often indistinguishable from those experienced by convicted criminals”). See also Winship, 397 U.S. at 359 (applying reasonable doubt to juveniles facing delinquency charges that would be criminal charges if they were above the age of eighteen); Gault, 387 U.S. at 17-18, 54 (recognizing similarities between the adult and juvenile systems); Kent, 383 U.S. at 555-56 (ruling that constitutional guarantees applicable to adults should apply to juveniles before they are waived into the adult system).

[17] See Cart Rixey, The Ultimate Disillusionment: The Need for Jury Trials in Juvenile Adjudications, 58 Cath. U. L. Rev. 885, 887 (2009) (arguing that McKeiver no longer applies due to changed circumstances in the juvenile court system and explaining that juvenile codes have begun to incorporate language from criminal codes focusing on public safety).

[18] See Feld, supra note 15 at 87 (explaining there are significant sentencing discrepancies among juveniles who are waived into adult court and juveniles who remain in juvenile proceedings); see also Ainsworth supra note 9 at 1124-25.

[19] See Thomas & Stich, supra note 1 at 278 (explaining that “no evidence has been presented to show that the trial of juveniles by jury would hamper the rehabilitation of youth”).

[20] See Gerald P. Hill, II, Revisiting Juvenile Justice: The Requirement for Jury Trials in Juvenile Proceedings Under the Sixth Amendment, 9 Fl. Coastal L. Rev. 143, 176 (2008) (claiming defendants are not entitled to juries consisting of jurors in any particular age groups). See also Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 530 (1975) (holding that the fair cross-section rule is to govern the selection of juries).

[21] See Gabriella C. Perez, Teen Court: Recommendations to the 13th Circuit Teen Court Program, 7 Stetson J. Advoc. & L. 300, 311 (2020) (discussing the history of teen courts and analyzing the teen court system in Florida).

[22] See id. at 301.

[23] See id. at 321-22 (claiming there is no way to know if low recidivism rates are the result of teen courts or the imposition of forced civil sanctions).

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