Juvenile Courts and Law

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Juvenile law is the body of law that applies to young people who are not yet adults. These people are called juveniles or minors. In most states, a person is a juvenile until eighteen years old. Juvenile cases are handled in a special court, usually called a juvenile court. Before the American juvenile justice system was created in the late 1800s, juveniles who broke the law were treated like adult criminals.

Historical Background

When the United States was born in 1776, children under seven years of age were exempt from the criminal laws. Courts, however, treated juveniles seven years and older like miniature adults. Juveniles could be arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes. If convicted, they received prison sentences just like adults. Children convicted of minor crimes found themselves in jails with adult murderers and rapists, where children learned the ways of these criminals.

In the early 1800s, immigrants from Europe filled American cities such as New York. Neglected immigrant children often roamed city streets and got into trouble while their parents looked for work. In 1818, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism created the term "juvenile delinquents" to describe these children.

Social awareness led people to search for a better way to handle young people who broke the law. In the 1820s, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency suggested separating adult and juvenile criminals. The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents worked to reform juvenile delinquents instead of punishing them. It sent them to live in dormitories and to go to school to learn to work in factories. Unfortunately, these programs often did more harm than good. Manufacturers overworked the young children while school directors kept the children's wages.

In the late 1800s, Americans decided it was time to treat juvenile criminals differently than adult criminals. As one man put it, "Children need care, not harsh punishment." Many people believed that if cared for properly, juvenile criminals could become law-abiding citizens. In 1872, Massachusetts became the first state to hold separate court sessions for children. In the 1890s, the Chicago Women's Club urged Illinois to create an entirely separate justice system for juveniles. Illinois did so by creating the world's first juvenile court in 1899.

By 1925, all but two states had juvenile justice systems. As of 1999, all states have such systems. The federal government even has a juvenile justice system for people under eighteen who violate federal law. The goal of all juvenile justice systems is to protect society from young people who break the law while reforming them into lawful adults.

Juvenile Law

Juvenile courts handle cases involving three kinds of problems: crimes, status offenses, and child abuse or neglect. Criminal cases involve the same kinds of crimes that adults commit, such as burglary, robbery, and murder. For serious cases such as murder, some states allow juveniles over a certain age, often fourteen, to be tried as adults. In such cases, if the court decides a juvenile cannot be reformed by the juvenile justice system, it sends him to the regular court system to be tried as an adult.

Status offenses are things that are illegal for juveniles but not for adults. Truancy (missing school), running away from home, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol are status offenses. Abuse and neglect cases are lawsuits by states against parents or guardians who are abusing or not taking care of their children. In these cases, the parent or guardian is on trial, not the child. States can order parents and guardians to stop abusing children and to care for them properly with food, shelter, and clothing. States also can take children away from abusive parents and place them with loving relatives or in child care centers and foster homes.

Juvenile Courts

A juvenile case usually begins with a police investigation in response to a complaint by a citizen, parent, or victim of juvenile crime. In many cases, the police resolve the problem themselves by talking to the juvenile, his parents, and the victim. The police can give the juvenile a warning, arrange for him to pay for any damage he caused, make him promise not to break the law again, and make sure the victim is alright.

If the police think a juvenile case needs to go to court, they arrest the juvenile and take him to the police station. If the juvenile committed a serious crime, such as rape or murder, the police may keep him in jail until the juvenile court decides how to handle the case. After the police arrest a juvenile, an intake officer in the juvenile court decides whether there really is a case against the juvenile. If not, the police give the juvenile back to his parents or guardians.

If there is a case, the intake officer may arrange an informal solution. If the intake officer thinks the state needs to file a case against the juvenile, she makes this recommendation to the state district attorney. The district attorney then files a petition against the juvenile, charging him with specific violations. While a juvenile waits for his hearing to begin, the state prepares a social investigation report about the juvenile's background and the circumstances of his offense.

In court, a juvenile case is called a hearing or adjudication instead of a trial. Most hearings are closed to the public to protect the juvenile's privacy. The judge decides the case instead of a jury. As in a regular trial, the judge listens to testimony from witnesses for both the state and the juvenile. If the state has charged the juvenile with a crime, it must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That means the case must be so strong that no reasonable person would doubt that the juvenile committed the crime.

After the judge hears all the evidence, she decides whether the juvenile has committed the offense charged. If so, the juvenile is called delinquent instead of guilty of a crime. The judge next holds a dispositional hearing instead of a sentencing. At the dispositional hearing, the judge uses the state's social investigation report to decide how to reform the juvenile while protecting society from him. The judge may require probation, community service, a fine, restitution, or confinement in a juvenile detention center. Probation allows the juvenile to go home but requires him to obey certain rules under court supervision. Restitution requires the juvenile to pay for any damage he caused. Juveniles who commit the most serious crimes find themselves in juvenile detention centers. Although they resemble jails, detention centers are supposed to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents, not punish them.

Constitutional Rights

The U.S. Constitution gives adult defendants many rights in criminal cases. For example, defendants have the right to know the charges against them, to be represented by an attorney, and to have a jury trial in cases in which they face imprisonment for more than six months. When states created juvenile justice systems in the early 1900s, they did not give these same rights to juvenile defendants. Juvenile justice systems were supposed to help juveniles rather than punish them, so people did not think juveniles needed constitutional rights.

As the century passed, people began to question whether juveniles need constitutional protection. The Fourteenth Amendment says states may not deprive a person of liberty, meaning freedom, without due process of law. Due process of law means a fair trial. Juveniles who are found delinquent and either placed on probation or confined in juvenile detention centers lose their freedom.

In a series of cases beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to give juveniles many of the constitutional rights that criminal defendants have. In the first case, Kent v. United States (1966), the Supreme Court said the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to juveniles. One year later in In re Gault (1967), the Court said juveniles have the right to know the charges against them and to be represented by an attorney. Juveniles also have the right to cross-examine witnesses against them and the right not to testify against themselves. Three years later in In re Winship (1970), the Court said states must prove criminal charges against juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt.

In McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1973), the Supreme Court decided that juveniles do not have the right to jury trials. The Court said jury trials would turn the juvenile justice system into the criminal justice system, making it senseless to run two systems. The trend in favor of juveniles continued, however, in Breed v. Jones (1975). There the Court said juveniles who are found delinquent cannot be tried again for the same offense as adults. Then in Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Supreme Court said states may not execute a defendant who is younger than sixteen at the time of his offense.

The Future

At the end of the twentieth century, the American juvenile justice system received low marks from many critics. Extending constitutional rights to juveniles made hearings seem more like criminal trials. That made it harder to use the system to reform delinquents instead of treating them like adult criminals. The availability of drugs and weapons led to increased juvenile crime. According to Congressional Quarterly, "Between 1985 and 1995, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes rose 69 percent. For murders it rose 96 percent." Finally, some say the juvenile justice system is racist because minority youths are more likely to find themselves in detention centers.

Many people wonder whether the juvenile justice system is doing, or can do, its job of helping juvenile delinquents. A rash of juvenile shootings in schools across the country forced Americans to look at whether families are taking care of their children. Frustrated and scared, Americans looked to the future of juvenile justice with more questions and concerns than solutions.

Suggestions for further reading

Berry, Joy. Every Kid's Guide to Laws that Relate to Parents and Children. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.

—-. Every Kid's Guide to the Juvenile Justice System. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.

Burns, Marilyn. I Am Not a Short Adult: Getting Good at Being a Kid. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co. 1977.

Greenberg, Keith Elliot, and Jeanne Vestal. Adolescent Rights: Are Young People Equal under the Law? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Hyde, Margaret O. Juvenile Justice and Injustice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1977.

Kowalski, Kathiann M. Teen Rights: At Home, at School, Online. Enslow Publishers Inc., 2000.

Landau, Elaine. Your Legal Rights: From Custody Battles to School Searches, the Headline-Making Cases That Affect Your Life. Walker & Co., 1995.

Marx, Trish, and Sandra Joseph Nunez. And Justice for All: The Legal Rights of Young People. Millbrook Press, 1997.

Olney, Ross R., and Patricia J. Olney. Up against the Law: Your Legal Rights as a Minor. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

Riekes, Linda, Steve Jenkins, and Armentha Russell. Juvenile Responsibility and Law. St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1990.