Do Juveniles Have a Right to Trial by Jury?

By , Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)

The right to trial by jury in the United States Constitution belongs only to adults. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court held that there's no jury-trial right in juvenile delinquency proceedings. (McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).) (See more on Constitutional Rights in Juvenile Cases.) Some of the Court's justices expressed concerns, including apprehension that requiring jury trials would:

  • make proceedings "fully adversary" and destroy "the idealistic prospect of an intimate, informal protective proceeding"
  • fail to significantly improve the ability of courts to determine case facts, and
  • undermine confidentiality.

Later judicial decisions have questioned some of the original justifications for withholding the jury-trial right from minors. (See People v. Smith, 110 Cal. App. 4th 1072 (2003).) But despite those reservations, the fact remains that state governments aren't obligated to provide trial by jury in the juvenile justice system. Instead, judges (or judge-equivalents) usually decide juvenile cases.

Although the Supreme Court said that states don't have to provide jury trials in the juvenile justice system, it allowed for the possibility that they would. (Juveniles tried in the adult system are entitled to juries; see When Juveniles Are Tried in Adult Criminal Court.) Though the practice is relatively rare, some states offer jury trials in juvenile court. In several of those states, juveniles are permitted juries only in limited circumstances—for instance, when the potential sentence is particularly severe due to various factors.

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