Matter of Samuel W.,
Judges Scileppi, Breitel and Jasen concur with Judge Bergan; Chief Judge Fuld dissents and votes to reverse in a separate opinion in which Judges Burke and Keating concur.
A main objective of the special system of law for treating young juvenile offenders is to hold them as children apart from the usual methods and ineradicable consequences of the criminal law. This court in People v. Lewis (260 N. Y. 171) expressed, in 1932, the hope and the purpose of the framers of the early New York juvenile delinquency statutes, beginning with the Children's Court Act in 1922, that the proceedings were not designed to be punitive but were for the protection and training of a child found in difficulty; and would be administered by humane and parentally minded Judges whose end was not to punish, but to save the child.
The successful juvenile court is concerned primarily with the totality of factors which cause a child to meet difficulty in his life, and only incidentally with the event which brings the child to the court, which may itself play only a small role in that problem.
The Judge, acting as a mature and well-balanced parent, tries to find the answer to the child's trouble; and only if all else fails and there is no other recourse, does he commit the child to any institution, and even then he tries to find the one best suited to the child's needs and having the fewest punitive policies.
Nothing could be farther removed in temper and purpose than this from the criminal court for adults. And although it has failed, as all human institutions have a tendency to do, always to reach its highest purpose; and has sometimes in method and result seemed to act like a criminal court, it is not reasonably arguable that in the half-century or so of its existence in the United States the juvenile court has profoundly changed for the better the way children in difficulty are treated by the public legal system.
In such a court, the accoutrements of due process evolved from the 18th Century experience with the rigors of common-law prosecutions -- public trial, shields against self incrimination, adversary inquiry into the single event which brought the child to court -- seem irrelevant.
As Judge Crouch wrote for the majority in Lewis (p. 177): "For the purposes of this case, the fundamental point is that the proceeding was not a criminal one. The State was not seeking to punish a malefactor. It was seeking to salvage a boy who was in danger of becoming one. In words which have been often quoted, 'the problem for determination by the judge is not, Has this boy or girl committed a specific wrong, but What is he, how has he become what he is, and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career.' (23 Harvard Law Review, 104, 119, 'The Juvenile Court,' by Julian W. Mack.) * * * Since the proceeding was not a criminal one, there was neither right to nor necessity for the procedural safeguards prescribed by constitution and statute in criminal cases."
In that case an important constitutional question was squarely met. The Trial Judge examined the 15-year-old boy as to the facts of alleged delinquency in a private hearing, but in the presence of his family and clergyman, without warning against self incrimination (pp. 173-174). The boy admitted the facts and on his admission the adjudication of juvenile delinquency was made. It was not, Judge Crouch noted, in examining the constitutional problem, "a criminal trial and there was no defect" (p. 174). Apart from how the Constitution may be read in its effect on highly informal proceedings looking into the circumstances in which a child is failing in normal growth and in adaptation, there is a genuine and responsibly held difference of opinion about what is best to do. Many sociologists believe that the criteria of the criminal law and its methodology, including protection against self incrimination and the right to counsel in the case of the young child, impair rather than help a process designed not as punishment but as salvation.
A lawyer's traditional professional duty in an adversary proceeding is to do what he can and fight as hard as he can, to see his client wins. In the criminal case this is to see his client acquitted, the charge reduced, or the punishment minimized. But a child's best interest is not necessarily, or even probably, promoted if he wins in the particular inquiry which may bring him to the juvenile court.
And since the lawyer as advocate ought not be stultified in his professional obligation to sustain his cause, he should likewise not be cast in the role of impartial adviser to the court on the social problem involved; and, thus, the original view of the founders of the juvenile court that it would be better not to have formal adversary proceedings remains essentially valid.
Self incrimination in the historic Star Chamber sense in which the Bill of Rights was concerned is thought by proponents of the juvenile court to have no relevancy to a process in which the particular act which brought the child to the inquiry may play no significant part in an attempt to see him in his total environment and to help him. In theory, at least, there is nothing to incriminate and there is no criminal.
There is, naturally enough, another side of the coin. A different view is shared by a number of lawyers concerned. They see some danger of erosion of constitutional rights in the informality and lack of "legality" in the way juvenile court Judges in practice deal with the children's cases. And they are concerned, also, that "fairness" by the customary standards of the adult criminal case is being withheld from children in juvenile courts.
It is pointed out that the event that brings the child before the Judge is, by definition, the equivalent of a crime, i.e., an "act which, if done by an adult, would constitute a crime" (Family Ct. Act, § 712, subd. [a]). It is noted, additionally, that the disposition of the case, although not penal in nature, may sometimes be not much different from that of youthful offenders convicted under the criminal laws. Under very limited circumstances, for example, the juvenile may be committed to Elmira Reception Center or other similar institutions (Family Ct. Act, § 758, subd. [b]).
Careful and fully explicit safeguards, however, are provided in the statute to insure that an adjudication of this kind is not a "conviction" (§ 781); that it affects no right or privilege, including the right to hold public office or to obtain a license (§ 782); and a cloak of protective confidentiality is thrown around all the proceedings (§§ 783-784). These protections have had full judicial implementation (Matter of Giroffi, 283 App. Div. 890; Murphy v. City of ...