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Winship, In re


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397 U.S. 358 (1970), argued 20 Jan. 1970, decided 31 Mar. 1970 by vote of 6 to 3; Brennan for the Court, Harlan concurring, Burger, Stewart, and Black in dissent. The Supreme Court's extension of criminal defendants’ rights to juveniles faced with possible incarceration revealed the inconsistencies between existing juvenile procedures in the states and the adversary standards implied by In reGault (1967). Winship addressed one of these and, in the process, raised significant jurisprudential questions about the nature of due process in a constitutional system.

At issue was the standard of proof necessary to commit a twelve-year-old boy to a training school for an act that would have constituted larceny if committed by an adult. Under New York juvenile law at the time, a family court judge needed only a “preponderance of the evidence” to justify juvenile detention, rather than the criminal standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

On appeal, the Court ventured beyond the explicit guarantees of the Constitution (since the reasonable doubt standard is nowhere specified) to assert that such a standard, accepted at common law and historically by the Court for determining guilt, was essential for due process and the fair treatment of juveniles facing incarceration; furthermore, it would not disturb the distinctiveness and flexibility of juvenile adjudication. The Court thus “constitutionalized” the reasonable doubt standard for adult criminal defendants as well as juveniles.

Significantly, Chief Justice Warren Burger's dissent foreshadowed the emergence of a more conservative attitude toward the procedural protections afforded minors. A year later, the Court sharply curtailed the expansion of due process. In McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971) it narrowly interpreted Gault and Winship and denied juveniles the right to trial by jury.

Albert R. Matheny

Subjects: Law — Politics.


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