In 1961, while on probation from an earlier case, Morris Kent, age 16, was charged with rape and robbery. Kent confessed to the offense as well as to several similar incidents. Assuming that the District of Columbia juvenile court would consider waiving jurisdiction to the adult system, Kent’s attorney filed a motion requesting a hearing on the issue of jurisdiction.
The juvenile court judge did not rule on this motion filed by Kent’s attorney. Instead, he entered a motion stating that the court was waiving jurisdiction after making a “full investigation.
” The judge did not describe the investigation or the grounds for the waiver. Kent was subsequently found guilty in criminal court on six counts of housebreaking and robbery and sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison.
Kent’s lawyer sought to have the criminal indictment dismissed, arguing that the waiver had been invalid. He also appealed the waiver and filed a writ of habeas corpus asking the State to justify Kent’s detention.
Appellate courts rejected both the appeal and the writ, refused to scrutinize the judge’s “investigation,” and accepted the waiver as valid. In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Kent’s attorney argued that the judge had not made a complete investigation and that Kent was denied constitutional rights simply because he was a minor.
The Court ruled the waiver invalid, stating that Kent was entitled to a hearing that measured up to “the essentials of due process and fair treatment,” that Kent’s counsel should have had access to all records involved in the waiver, and that the judge should have provided a written statement of the reasons for waiver.
Technically, the Kent decision applied only to D.C. courts, but its impact was more widespread. The Court raised a potential constitutional challenge to parens patriae as the foundation of the juvenile court. In its past decisions, the Court had interpreted the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to mean that certain classes of people could receive less due process if a “compensating benefit” came with this lesser protection. In theory, the juvenile court provided less due process but a greater concern for the interests of the juvenile. The Court referred to evidence that this compensating benefit may not exist in reality and that juveniles may receive the “worst of both worlds”—”neither the protection accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”