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Lawyer Library: History of America's Juvenile Justice System

Since its inception, the American Juvenile System has progressed from one that has seen children sentenced in adult criminal courts, to a system that strives not only to protect the welfare of juvenile offenders, but to also become tough enough on crime so as to protect public safety. Not until the late 1800s did the American Juvenile Justice system take its first steps towards the system that it is today, with its greater concern for the welfare and rehabilitation of minors than the simple goal of prosecution. With the progression of time however, reforms to the juvenile system shifted it from the original intent of changing the system to a less stringent one to a criminal system that has become increasingly more like adult criminal courts.

Progressive Era Reforms

The seeds for change began with the opening of the New York House of Refuge in 1825. Prior to that time children offenders over the age of seven were sentenced and served time as adults in the criminal system. But with the founding of this first institution for juvenile delinquents, other states soon followed suit opening other reform schools in efforts to increase education and moral standards. These changes ultimately resulted in the first formal court for juveniles located in Cook County, Illinois, and by 1925, 48 states had established their own juvenile court systems.

The following years, between 1900 and 1918, marked a period of change and reform in America that was crucial in fostering the growth of juvenile justice system changes. Progressive reformers, through the use of the media, sought to bring attention to the corruption of city government, child labor, women's suffrage, ruthless and unregulated business practices, and poor work conditions.

In re Gault - 1967

By the 1960s, new concerns regarding the state of juvenile justice were raised by civil libertarians. By this time the courts had jurisdiction over cases that involved children under the age of 18, as well as the waivers that were required to transfer them to the adult system. Civil libertarians felt that the complete control of the courts made the juvenile institutions more like adult prisons, yet unlike adults, minors were not afforded the same rights during sentencing.

In 1967 this was clearly displayed in the case of 15 year old Gerald Gault who was arrested for alleged lewd phone calls to a neighbor. At the time of his arrest, Gault's parents, who were working outside of the home, were not notified of the arrest, nor was he made aware of the charges against him; he was neither informed of his rights nor given the opportunity to face his accuser.Gault was convicted by the judge and sentenced to an industrial school for six years. In an 8 to 1 vote by the United States Supreme Court, the ruling was found to go against the fourteenth amendment. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles have the right to:

  • Receive notice of charges

  • Obtain legal counsel

  • Confrontation and cross-examination

  • Receive a transcript of the proceedings

  • Appellate review

  • The privilege against self-incrimination

The Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act - 1968

In 1968, the government, in a move to decrease juvenile delinquency and move minors charged with noncriminal offenses outside of the court system, enacted the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act. The act was designed to encourage the states to create community programs that would discourage the delinquency of minors through federal funding and was a predecessor to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act - 1974

The purpose of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act is to help prevent juvenile delinquency by moving minors from institutions through funding provided to states with participating programs. In order to receive funding the states had to meet four requirements:

  • The de-institutionalization of status offenders - runaways, truants and curfew violators cannot be detained in juvenile detention centers or adult jails.

  • Sight and sound separation - forbids contact between juvenile and adult offenders.

  • Jail removal - with the exception of limited circumstances, the placement of minors in adult jails is forbidden.

  • Disproportionate minority confinement - states must address the issue of over representation of minority youths in the justice system.

Several entities were also created under this act in order to help prevent juvenile delinquency. These entities include The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, The Runaway Youth Program, and The National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

'Get Tough on Crime' Legislation

In the late 1980s through the mid 1990s Americans became increasingly concerned with the steep rise in juvenile crimes. For many there was a fear that the juvenile system as it stood was not conservative enough to prevent continued crime growth. The American public demanded a more tough-minded approach which resulted in the enactment of legislative measures which were designed to "get tough on crime". Amendments were made to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 to allow stronger juvenile justice laws. As a result of the increased fear of crime during this period, nearly all states passed laws which made it easier to try juveniles in adult courts for certain violent crimes and weapons violations. Minimum detention standards were also put into place in some states throughout the country.