Bullet The juvenile justice system was founded on the concept of rehabilitation through individualized justice
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Early in U.S. history, children who broke the law were treated the same as adult criminals

Throughout the late 18th century, "infants" below the age of reason (traditionally age 7) were presumed to be incapable of criminal intent and were, therefore, exempt from prosecution and punishment. Children as young as 7, however, could stand trial in criminal court for offenses committed and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to prison or even to death.

The 19th-century movement that led to the establishment of the juvenile court in the U.S. had its roots in 16th-century European educational reform movements. These earlier reform movements changed the perception of children from one of miniature adults to one of persons with less than fully developed moral and cognitive capacities.

John Augustus—planting the seeds of juvenile probation (1847)

"I bailed nineteen boys, from 7 to 15 years of age, and in bailing them it was understood, and agreed by the court, that their cases should be continued from term to term for several months, as a season of probation; thus each month at the calling of the docket, I would appear in court, make my report, and thus the cases would pass on for 5 or 6 months. At the expiration of this term, twelve of the boys were brought into court at one time, and the scene formed a striking and highly pleasing contrast with their appearance when first arraigned. The judge expressed much pleasure as well as surprise at their appearance, and remarked, that the object of law had been accomplished and expressed his cordial approval of my plan to save and reform."

As early as 1825, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency was advocating the separation of juvenile and adult offenders. Soon, facilities exclusively for juveniles were established in most major cities. By mid-century, these privately operated youth "prisons" were under criticism for various abuses. Many States then took on the responsibility of operating juvenile facilities.

The first juvenile court in this country was established in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899

Illinois passed the Juvenile Court Act of 1899, which established the Nation's first juvenile court. The British doctrine of parens patriae (the State as parent) was the rationale for the right of the State to intervene in the lives of children in a manner different from the way it intervenes in the lives of adults. The doctrine was interpreted to mean that, because children were not of full legal capacity, the State had the inherent power and responsibility to provide protection for children whose natural parents were not providing appropriate care or supervision. A key element was the focus on the welfare of the child. Thus, the delinquent child was also seen as in need of the court's benevolent intervention.

Juvenile courts flourished for the first half of the 20th century

By 1910, 32 States had established juvenile courts and/or probation services. By 1925, all but two States had followed suit. Rather than merely punishing delinquents for their crimes, juvenile courts sought to turn delinquents into productive citizens—through treatment.

The mission to help children in trouble was stated clearly in the laws that established juvenile courts. This benevolent mission led to procedural and substantive differences between the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

During the next 50 years, most juvenile courts had exclusive original jurisdiction over all youth under age 18 who were charged with violating criminal laws. Only if the juvenile court waived its jurisdiction in a case could a child be transferred to criminal court and tried as an adult. Transfer decisions were made on a case-by-case basis using a "best interests of the child and public" standard, and were thus within the realm of individualized justice.

Figure 1 The focus on offenders and not offenses, on rehabilitation and not punishment, had substantial procedural impact

Unlike the criminal justice system, where district attorneys select cases for trial, the juvenile court controlled its own intake. And unlike criminal prosecutors, juvenile court intake considered extra-legal as well as legal factors in deciding how to handle cases. Juvenile court intake also had discretion to handle cases informally, bypassing judicial action.

In the courtroom, juvenile court hearings were much less formal than criminal court proceedings. In this benevolent court—with the express purpose of protecting children—due process protections afforded criminal defendants were deemed unnecessary. In the early juvenile courts, and even in some to this day, attorneys for the State and the youth are not considered essential to the operation of the system, especially in less serious cases.

A range of dispositional options was available to a judge wanting to help rehabilitate a child. Regardless of offense, outcomes ranging from warnings to probation supervision to training school confinement could be part of the treatment plan. Dispositions were tailored to "the best interests of the child." Treatment lasted until the child was "cured" or became an adult (age 21), whichever came first.

Figure 2 As public confidence in the treatment model waned, due process protections were introduced

In the 1950's and 1960's, many came to question the ability of the juvenile court to succeed in rehabilitating delinquent youth. The treatment techniques available to juvenile justice professionals never reached the desired levels of effectiveness. Although the goal of rehabilitation through individualized justice—the basic philosophy of the juvenile justice system—was not in question, professionals were concerned about the growing number of juveniles institutionalized indefinitely in the name of treatment.

In a series of decisions beginning in the 1960's, the U.S. Supreme Court required that juvenile courts become more formal—more like criminal courts. Formal hearings were now required in waiver situations, and delinquents facing possible confinement were given protection against self-incrimination and rights to receive notice of the charges against them, to present witnesses, to question witnesses, and to have an attorney. Proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" rather than merely "a preponderance of evidence" was now required for an adjudication. The Supreme Court, however, still held that there were enough "differences of substance between the criminal and juvenile courts . . . to hold that a jury is not required in the latter." (See Supreme Court decisions later in this Bulletin.)

Meanwhile Congress, in the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act of 1968, recommended that children charged with noncriminal (status) offenses be handled outside the court system. A few years later, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which as a condition for State participation in the Formula Grants program required deinstitutionalization of status offenders and nonoffenders as well as the separation of juvenile delinquents from adult offenders. (In the 1980 amendments to the 1974 Act, Congress added a requirement that juveniles be removed from adult jail and lockup facilities.) Community-based programs, diversion, and deinstitutionalization became the banners of juvenile justice policy in the 1970's.

In the 1980's, the pendulum began to swing toward law and order

During the 1980's, the public perceived that serious juvenile crime was increasing and that the system was too lenient with offenders. Although there was substantial misperception regarding increases in juvenile crime, many States responded by passing more punitive laws. Some laws removed certain classes of offenders from the juvenile justice system and handled them as adult criminals in criminal court. Others required the juvenile justice system to be more like the criminal justice system and to treat certain classes of juvenile offenders as criminals but in juvenile court.

As a result, offenders charged with certain offenses are excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction or face mandatory or automatic waiver to criminal court. In some States, concurrent jurisdiction provisions give prosecutors the discretion to file certain juvenile cases directly in criminal court rather than juvenile court. In some States, some adjudicated juvenile offenders face mandatory sentences.

Figure 3 The 1990's have been a time of unprecedented change as State legislatures crack down on juvenile crime

Five areas of change have emerged as States passed laws designed to crack down on juvenile crime. These laws generally involve expanded eligibility for criminal court processing and adult correctional sanctioning and reduced confidentiality protections for a subset of juvenile offenders. Between 1992 and 1997, all but three States changed laws in one or more of the following areas:

  • Transfer provisions—Laws made it easier to transfer juvenile offenders from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system (45 States).

  • Sentencing authority—Laws gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options (31 States).

  • Confidentiality—Laws modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions by making records and proceedings more open (47 States).

In addition to these areas, there was change relating to:

  • Victims rights—Laws increased the role of victims of juvenile crime in the juvenile justice process (22 States).

  • Correctional programming—As a result of new transfer and sentencing laws, adult and juvenile correctional administrators developed new programs.

The 1980's and 1990's have seen significant change in terms of treating more juvenile offenders as criminals. Recently, States have been attempting to strike a balance in their juvenile justice systems among system and offender accountability, offender competency development, and community protection. Juvenile code purpose clauses also incorporate restorative justice language (offenders repair the harm done to victims and communities and accept responsibility for their criminal actions). Many States have added to the purpose clauses of their juvenile codes phrases such as:

  • Hold juveniles accountable for criminal behavior.
  • Provide effective deterrents.
  • Protect the public from criminal activity.
  • Balance attention to offenders, victims, and the community.
  • Impose punishment consistent with the seriousness of the crime.



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1999 National Report Series, Juvenile Justice
Bulletin: Juvenile Justice: A Century of Change
December 1999