Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974

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Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974

Eric J. Miller

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-415, 88 Stat. 1109) was the first major federal legislation to shape the content of state policy on the juvenile court system. It was enacted in response to sustained criticism of the juvenile court system that reached its peak in three Supreme Court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through this act Congress created federal standards for the treatment of juvenile offenders and provided financial incentives for state systems to comply with those standards.

The act had two main goals: (1) to remove juveniles from adult jails and prisons, and (2) to end the practice of using the juvenile court system as a means of sending both criminal and noncriminal minors to prisonlike institutions for rehabilitation. The theory of rehabilitation holds that people's behavior, especially young people's behavior, can be changed so that individuals can reenter and function normally in society. However, putting that theory into practice through the juvenile court system actually had a negative effect both on individuals and society.


Juvenile courts first appeared in Chicago, Illinois, in 1899. The goal of the juvenile court was not to punish but to "cure" the delinquent child. In undertaking this mission, the juvenile court system broke with the traditional practice of criminal justice. The central feature of the juvenile court system was the belief that crimes were committed by pathological characters who were inadequately socialized, and that therapy could cure such individuals. (Someone who is not socialized has trouble fitting into social groups or functioning in social situations.)

Experts in penal policy believed that children were less set in their characters, attitudes, and behavior and therefore more open to intervention and reform. The juvenile court system therefore attempted to identify behavior that appeared to predict criminal behavior, such as truancy, running away from home, or spending time in pool halls. Children showing such "precriminal" behavior were characterized as "delinquent" in the same manner as juvenile burglars and thieves. The juvenile court could then treat the precriminal delinquent in the same manner as those juveniles charged with a crime.

The juvenile court process was based on a technique of intervention and diversion (directing juveniles away from adult courts and prisons). A variety of state officers (not only the police) could identify children as "at risk" or delinquent and refer them to juvenile court, where the child would come under the "protection" of both judge and probation officer in the role of surrogate parent. To emphasize its nonpunitive orientation, the juvenile courts' proceedings were not criminal but civil in nature. Because rehabilitation programs rely on individualized treatment, the rules of court procedure, evidence, and proof were more relaxed than in an adult environment. Instead of the passive role assumed by the judge in adult court, the juvenile court judge was supposed to get to know and become more involved with his or her charge. Thus many of the due process protections available in adult court were absent in juvenile court.

In practice, however, the juvenile judge rarely spent sufficient time engaging with the child to tailor treatment to the offense. Judges could and would sentence juvenile offenders to long periods of incarceration in juvenile institutions or transfer juveniles to adult prisons. They did so without providing the minimal attention required by the due process protections available in adult courts.


Critics began to expose judges' decisions and recommendations in juvenile courts as arbitrary. Furthermore, academics in various fields, led by Francis Allen, called the ideal of rehabilitation into question. By 1970 three Supreme Court cases transformed the juvenile justice system by requiring that the traditional criminal protections of due process and proof beyond a reasonable doubt be applied in juvenile court. The Court's decisions inKent v. United States (1966), In re Gault (1967), and In re Winship (1970) attacked the juvenile courts' lack of uniformity in sentencing and rejected the idea of "the delinquent." As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Gault, this label carried "only slightly less stigma than the term 'criminal' applied to adults."

By 1974, as a result of the Supreme Court's rulings, the juvenile court system was regarded as a failure. The idea that criminal and precriminal behaviors could be identified by judges and others in the court system was discredited. Juvenile courts had failed to divert enough children away from adult court (where they did not belong), failed to pay enough attention to the needs of the children referred to the courts, and employed an arbitrary set of procedures to determine what should be done with children who had passed through the system.


Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to overhaul the failing practice of intervention and rehabilitation. State juvenile justice systems would no longer institutionalize juveniles for supposedly "precriminal" offenses. The act defined a juvenile as someone under the age of eighteen, and juvenile delinquency as a violation of the law by a juvenile (which if committed by an adult would be treated as a crime). The act established a system for diverting juveniles away from adult prison through "grants to states and local governments to assist them in planning, establishing, operating, coordinating, and evaluating projects ... for the development of more effective education, training, research, prevention, diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation programs in the area of juvenile delinquency and programs to improve the juvenile justice system."


The act has had mixed results in achieving uniform sentences for juvenile offenders. Many states have attempted to avoid diverting youth from adult prisons by permitting prosecutors to choose whether to try minors in the juvenile or adult justice systems. Other states exclude serious criminal offenses from juvenile court. The emphasis on trying juveniles as adults has undermined the act's goal of keeping juveniles out of adult prisons, and in fact has greatly increased the number of juveniles tried in adult courts and present in the general prison population. In relative terms, however, diversion has worked. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the juvenile prison population grew at one-quarter the rate of the young adult population.

In the late twentieth century the ideal of rehabilitation gave way to an emphasis on punishment of crime in general, and youth crime was increasingly viewed simply as crime. The act was part of this shift in attitudes, but it is unclear whether it was directly responsible for the trend. Accordingly, the act's greatest legacy may be the humane treatment of young offenders through diversion from prison and supervision in the community.


Allen, Francis A. "The Juvenile Court and the Limits of Juvenile Justice." In The Borderland of Criminal Justice: Essays in Law and Criminology. Ed. Francis A. Allen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Allen, Francis A. The Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal: Penal Policy and Social Purpose. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Fagan, Jeffrey, and Franklin E. Zimring, eds. The Changing Borders of Juvenile Justice: Transfer of Adolescents to the Criminal Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Platt, Anthony M. The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Roberts, Albert R., ed. Juvenile Justice: Policies, Programs and Services, 2d ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1998.

Ryerson, Ellen. The Best-Laid Plans: America's Juvenile Court Experiment. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Watkins, John C., Jr. The Juvenile Justice Century: A Sociolegal Commentary on American Juvenile Courts. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1998.

Trying Juveniles as Adults

Those in favor of trying juveniles as adults argue that strict punishment is a deterrent against crime. And simply from the perspective of justice, they argue, brutal crimes should not receive lighter sentences just because the perpetrator is under eighteen. Those opposed to the practice argue that young people are the most likely candidates for rehabilita tion, but that those held in adult prisons are more likely to be assaulted or commit suicide than those held in juvenile facili ties, and upon their release they are much more likely to become repeat offenders. Studies have shown that the process is applied unfairly, as minority youths are much more likely to be tried as adults than are white youths convicted of similar crimes. Furthermore, many feel that it is inhumane to impose adult punishments on young people who have not had time to develop the complex moral judgments expected of adults. In twenty-three U.S. states, a juvenile tried as an adult may be executed, although the United Nations Conven tion on the Rights of the Child prohibits execution for crimes committed by minors. The United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world that allows this practice.