Juvenile Courts

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JUVENILE COURTS. The first specialized juvenile court in the United States was created on 1 July 1899 under an Illinois legislative act establishing the juvenile court division of the circuit court for Cook County. The civic leaders who propelled this reform sought to separate children and youth from the ugly conditions in prisons and to improve their opportunities for constructive citizenship. Conceptual forerunners of the juvenile court were the equity jurisdiction of the English Court of Chancery, common-law traditions limiting or prohibiting the criminal liability of juveniles below certain ages, and the doctrine of the inherent power of a state to protect the welfare of children. Influenced by these precedents, various American institutions in the nineteenth century developed privately operated houses of refuge, where juveniles toiled long hours in manufacturing tasks within an overall repressive environment, first in New York and then in other eastern cities in the 1820s and 1830s; developed probation, first in Massachusetts in 1868; and began holding separate hearings for juveniles accused of criminal violations, first in Massachusetts in 1879.

The 1899 Illinois legislation not only established separate courts for juveniles but also incorporated other reforms in juvenile justice. Since the intent was to help rather than to hurt, the state law kept legal proceedings simple and summary and eschewed lawyers. Social workers and behavioral scientists appeared in court to assist the judge in making and carrying out the most appropriate disposition of the cases. Court wards who were to be confined were segregated from adult offenders and placed in training and industrial schools—and some were placed in private foster homes and institutions. The state employed probation officers to facilitate adjustment.

Colorado passed a similar statute in 1903, formalizing and extending a Denver juvenile court that, under Judge Ben Lindsey, had been hearing juvenile cases separately prior to 1899, under a preexisting juvenile disorderly persons act. Specialized juvenile courts were quickly created in the larger cities of the East and Midwest, and by 1925 a juvenile court in some form existed in all but two states.

Constitutional challenges to juvenile court practices and procedures were consistently overruled until the 1960s. State appellate court rulings swept aside concerns that children were denied a right to bail, to counsel, public trials, jury trials, immunity against self-incrimination, and that children could be convicted on hearsay testimony or by only a preponderance of the evidence. Rulings found that juvenile proceedings were civil in nature and that their purpose was to obtain rehabilitation rather than to order punishment. Legislative reform in California and New York in 1961 and 1962, respectively, began to place a more regularized procedure on the historically informal juvenile court practices. Research on the juvenile justice system had shown that juvenile court judges not infrequently lacked legal training; that probation officers were undertrained and that their heavy caseloads often prohibited meaningful social intervention; that children were still regularly housed in jails; that juvenile correctional institutions were often, in reality, little more than breeding grounds for further criminal activity; and that juvenile recidivist rates were high.

In 1967, in the case In Re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that constitutional due process protected any juvenile whose liberty was threatened by juvenile court action and mandated formal rather than informal fact-finding hearings, together with the juvenile's right to be represented by an attorney and to avoid self-incrimination. The Court ruled in 1970 that the criminal justice system's principle of proof beyond a reasonable doubt must be utilized in juvenile court trials, but in 1971 it confirmed that juveniles were not entitled to a jury trial under the Constitution.

These Supreme Court rulings stimulated an ongoing legal challenge of juvenile court practices and procedures and signaled the beginning of a conspicuous role for lawyers in juvenile courts. Lawyers began to replace judges and probation officers as children's advocates. Benevolent intentions and broad juvenile court jurisdiction still applied, however. Noncriminal juvenile offenses—running away, habitual truancy, and incorrigibility—remained subject to sanction in all the states.

Although the customary maximum age limit for juvenile court jurisdiction is eighteen, public concerns regarding the extent and seriousness of juvenile law violations stimulated efforts in the 1970s to lower the age, to make more serious offenses subject exclusively to criminal rather than juvenile court sanctions, and to encourage the application of the juvenile code provision of many states for the discretionary transfer of juveniles from juvenile to criminal court jurisdiction. An opposition movement sought to narrow juvenile court jurisdiction by transferring primary responsibility for minor offenses to social service agencies and by extending the array of available community service alternatives for juvenile rehabilitation to avoid the necessity for state institutional commitment.

In the 1970s juvenile courts in all states had jurisdiction over dependent and neglected children as well as juvenile law violators (delinquents) and youths who commit noncriminal offenses (status offenders). Nearly a quarter of those courts also had jurisdiction over the voluntary relinquishment of children and their adoption and over the determination of paternity and support proceedings. The 1970s saw increased popularity of community-based programs and deinstitutionalization for juveniles in the justice system, and the passage of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act required states to keep juvenile offenders separate from adult offenders and to follow several other custody requirements in order to qualify for grants.

However, the 1980s brought a dramatic shift toward "law and order" policies, in response to misperceptions that a juvenile crime wave was occurring. A number of states passed more punitive laws. Some of these new laws moved certain classes of offenders from juvenile court to adult court, and others required juvenile courts to function more like adult courts by treating certain classes of juvenile offenders as adults. People charged with certain offenses would be excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction and thus face mandatory or automatic waiver to criminal court. In some states, prosecutors have discretion to file certain cases directly in criminal court, and in other states, mandatory sentencing laws apply to some juvenile offenders. In response to concern that the weight of this crackdown was falling disproportionately on minority youths, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was reauthorized in 1992 to require states to examine the issue and demonstrate the efforts made, if necessary, to reduce such injustices.

The Supreme Court also had a significant effect on juvenile justice in the 1980s. Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982) called for considering a defendant's age in deciding whether to apply the death penalty and Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988) and Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) set the minimum age for the death penalty at sixteen.

The 1990s brought further changes. Forty-five states made it easier to transfer juvenile offenders from the juvenile to the criminal justice system. Thirty-one states expanded the sentencing options in both juvenile and criminal court. Forty-seven states removed or modified the juvenile courts' confidentiality provisions, making proceedings and records less private. In twenty-two states laws increased the role for victims of juvenile crime in the juvenile justice system, and, finally, correctional administrators in both juvenile and adult facilities developed new correctional programs. Recently, states have also added language to their juvenile codes. The language addresses holding juveniles accountable for their criminal behavior, providing effective deterrents, protecting the public from criminal activity, balancing attention to offenders, victims, and the community, and imposing punishment suitable to the crime. Seventeen states increased the age to which juvenile courts had jurisdiction over juvenile offenders, but no states mandate a minimum age limit for transfering juveniles to criminal court. Twenty states incorporate "blended sentencing," which allows courts to combine juvenile and adult correctional sanctions on juvenile offenders. During the last few decades, states have shifted the purpose of juvenile courts from rehabilitation toward "punishment, accountability and public safety" and from considering an offender's individual situation toward basing the punishment on the offense.


American Bar Association. Facts about the American Judicial System. 1999.

Clapp, Elizabeth J. Mothers of All Children: Women Reformers and the Rise of Juvenile Courts in Progressive Era America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

Getis, Victoria. The Juvenile Court and the Progressives. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Knupfer, Anne Meis. Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency, and America's First Juvenile Court. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Polier, Justine Wise. Juvenile Justice in Double Jeopardy: The Distanced Community and Vengeful Retribution. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum, 1989.

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See alsoChicago ; Childhood ; Crime ; In Re Gault ; Prisons and Prison Reform .