The century old idea in the United States that children and adolescents are
less culpable and more able to be rehabilitated than adults who commit crimes
has been giving way to a harsher view in recent years. Here's an overview of
the evolution of society's attitudes on dealing with juveniles who commit
In 18th century America, little distinction was made in the criminal
culpability of children versus adults. Juveniles as young as age seven could
be tried and sentenced in criminal courts. As psychologists and sociologists
began to recognize the emerging notion of adolescence as a developmentally
distinct period of life, reformers argued that children should be removed from
In 1825, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency founded the
New York House of Refuge, the first institution designed to accommodate
juvenile delinquents. Many cities and states soon followed this example and set
up similar institutions. Progressive era reformers wanted to attack what they
believed were the roots of juvenile delinquency--a lack of moral education and
standards--and advocated that juvenile institutions include a significant
educational and rehabilitative component. For their efforts, the earliest
juvenile justice reformers were known as "child savers."
The child savers' advocacy resulted in the establishment of the first juvenile
court in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. The court was established under the
British legal doctrine of parens patriae -- "the State as parent" -- which was
interpreted to mean that it was the state's duty not only to protect the public
interest in juvenile offender cases, but also to intervene and serve as the
guardian of the interests of the children involved. As opposed to the
adversarial adult criminal system, where the state's role was to prosecute the
offender, the juvenile court had a more benevolent mission: it was designed to
be flexible, informal and to tailor to a juvenile's individual needs, with the
ultimate goal of rehabilitation. The process was subject to strict
confidentiality in order to avoid any unnecessary stigmatization of minors.
Because its goal of rehabilitation was not considered to be punitive, the court
had no due process protections, and had jurisdiction over both criminal and
status offenders (a category which applies only to minors and includes
offenses such as vagrancy and truancy.) Judges played a paternal role, and
were afforded tremendous discretion in order to achieve the goal of
individualized rehabilitative justice. By 1925, 48 states had established a
juvenile court system, which operated quietly until mid-century.
During the 1960s, civil libertarians began to raise concerns about the
progressive era model of juvenile justice. They argued that despite rhetoric
to the contrary, juveniles within the system were not actually being
rehabilitated, but rather warehoused in institutions not much different from an
adult prisons. If juveniles were going to be treated as adults in the
sentencing phase, the advocates argued, they should also be accorded the due
process protections afforded to adults in court. They also challenged the broad
discretion given to juvenile court judges. In a series of rulings during the
1960s and 1970s, The U.S. Supreme Court agreed; "There is evidence, in fact,
that there may be grounds for concern that the child receives the worst of both
worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the
solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children," wrote
Justice Abe Fortas in Kent v. United States. In decisions such as
In re Gault and In re Winship, the Supreme Court ruled that
juveniles must be afforded due process protections including: formal hearings
when facing waiver to criminal court; protection against self-incrimination;
the rights to notice of charges, counsel, and cross-examination of witnesses;
and adherence to the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" judicial standard.
In the early 1970s, several class-action lawsuits attacked the conditions and
policies of the juvenile institutions, alleging cruel and unusual punishment.
Social critics advocated deinstitutionalization and argued for more
preventative and community-based programs to assail the roots of juvenile
delinquency, particularly in urban areas. In 1974, Congress passed the
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which still governs the
juvenile justice system today. The act required the separation of juvenile
offenders from adult offenders, and the deinstitutionalization of status
offenders. A 1980 amendment mandated that juveniles could not be placed in
adult jails, with a few exceptions. The 1974 act also created the federal
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)
and offered grants to encourage states to
develop community-based programs as alternatives to institutionalization. Law
enforcement experimented with the introduction of community-based correctional
facilities, such as group homes and halfway houses.
However, this preventative approach to the delinquency problem was shortlived.
In the mid-1970s, as the media began to highlight rising violent crime rates,
the American public demanded the conservative "get tough" approach to crime
still widely endorsed today. State legislatures reacted to the public's
demands for accountability by passing more punitive juvenile justice laws. The
conservative trend continued in the 1990s: almost every state passed laws making it
easier to try juveniles in adult criminal courts; 31 states passed laws expanding sentencing options; 47 states
modified confidentiality provisions for juvenile courts; and 22 states passed
laws increasing the victim's role in juvenile court processing.
More than any time in recent history, the system is turning back toward
treating juvenile offenders like adults.
Bernard, Thomas J. The Cycle of Juvenile Justice. New York: Oxford
Krisberg, Barry and Austin, James F. Reinventing Juvenile Justice.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.
Guarino-Ghezzi, Susan and Loughran, Edward J. Balancing Juvenile
Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996.
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "Juvenile Justice: A
Century of Change." Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice, 1999.
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