In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)

2012-07-16 14:31:55

In In re Winship, twelve-year-old Samuel Winship was charged with delinquency for allegedly entering a locker and stealing $112 from a woman’s pocketbook, a crime that would constitute larceny if committed by an adult. The family court judge acknowledged that the proof against the boy might not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt but, as permitted by state statute, adjudicated him delinquent by a preponderance of the evidence. The court committed Winship to a training school for eighteen months, with annual extensions possible until his eighteenth birthday six years later.

The Supreme Court reversed. Winship first held that Fourteenth Amendment due process protects criminal defendants against conviction except on proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged. The Court then held that due process also requires application of the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the adjudicatory stage of delinquency proceedings. ‘‘The same considerations that demand extreme caution in fact finding to protect the innocent adult apply as well to the innocent child.’’

Like all other juvenile court proceedings, delinquency proceedings are civil in nature. Delinquency proceedings hold distinct criminal overtones, however, because they charge conduct that would be a crime if committed by an adult and because, as in Samuel Winship’s case, adjudication may lead to loss of liberty. Attention focused on delinquency’s standard of proof after the Supreme Court held, in In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), that Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process requires juvenile courts to confer constitutional protections needed to assure ‘‘fundamental fairness’’ in delinquency proceedings. Winship applied the fundamental fairness test to the adjudicatory stage of these proceedings, without deciding the standard of proof required during the preliminary and dispositional stages. State law determines the sufficiency of proof during these two stages.

Winship’s holding was also limited in other important respects. The Court did not apply due process to juvenile court proceedings that charge caregivers with abusing or neglecting children. Nor did the decision reach juvenile court proceedings that charge youths with only ‘‘status offenses’’—conduct such as truancy, incorrigibility, or running away from home, which would not be crimes if committed by an adult. The general civil standard of proof, preponderance of evidence, applies in abuse, neglect, and status offense proceedings unless state law requires a higher standard, such as clear and convincing evidence.

Winship’s legacy remains mixed. On the one hand, the decision requires the state to put on greater proof than frequently sustained delinquency adjudications under the traditional view that juvenile court sanctions constituted nonpunitive treatment in the youth’s best interests. Despite the juvenile court’s traditional rehabilitative mission, Winship makes it more difficult to ignore the punitive nature of delinquency dispositions. On the other hand, some question remains about Winship’s practical impact. Some commentators argue that juvenile court judges sometimes find delinquency on less evidence than would establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases, particularly when the judge believes the youth would benefit from court-ordered treatment unavailable outside the juvenile justice system.


References and Further Reading

  • Davis, Samuel M. Rights of Juveniles 2d: The Juvenile Justice System, 2005 ed. St. Paul, MN: West, 2005, 279–284.
  • LaFave, Wayne R. Criminal Law, 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2003, 56–57.
  • Rosenberg, Irene Merker, Winship Redux: 1970 to 1990, Texas Law Review 69 (1990): 109.
  • Sanborn, Joseph B., Jr., Remnants of Parens Patriae in the Adjudicatory Hearing: Is a Fair Trial Possible in Juvenile Court? Crime and Delinquency 40 (1994): 599.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)

See also Due Process of Law (V and XIV); In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967)