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History of the Juvenile Justice System

The legal concept of juvenile status, like the concept of childhood itself, is relatively new. The juvenile court system was established in the United States a little more than a century ago, with the first court appearing in Illinois in 1899. Before that time, children and youth were seen as "miniature adults" and thus tried and punished as adults. But advances in the understanding of child development and the push for a more compassionate approach changed that idea.

The following article summarizes the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States, from lessons learned during the progressive era to the development of juvenile courts and modern, more progressive approaches to juvenile justice.

Mass Immigration and Indigent Children

During the progressive era, which occurred between 1880 and 1920, social conditions in the United States were characterized by large waves of immigration and a dramatic increase in urbanization. As a direct result, hundreds of indigent children wandered the streets, and many became involved in criminal activity.

Initially, children who were convicted of crimes were housed with adult criminals. Social activists, lawmakers, and other officials soon realized that children institutionalized with adults were learning adult criminal behaviors and were exiting those institutions ready for criminal careers. Because of this negative influence, federal and state governments developed separate juvenile court systems and accompanying correctional institutions.

But even today, minors charged with certain juvenile offenses (such as murder) may be transferred to adult courts in many states.

Emergence of the Juvenile Justice System

Early juvenile institutions in the United States were based on the English Bridewell institution which emphasized the teaching of life and trade skills. The idea behind teaching skills was that criminality was a skill set learned to survive in particular social environments. If youth were taught other skills, they were more likely to make meaningful contributions to society upon their release.

Three other types of juvenile institutions began to appear in the United States during the progressive era:

  1. Houses of refuge
  2. New reformatories
  3. Separate institutions for juvenile females

Houses of refuge focused on the reeducation of youth and used indeterminate sentencing, religious training, and apprenticeships in various trades. The houses were organized using a military model to promote order and discipline, but the houses were often overcrowded and the youth overworked.

New reformatories, established in the mid to late 1800s, were cottages and foster homes that were often situated on farms. Family-type organization was prevalent, and hard physical labor was stressed. New reformatories suffered from the same types of problems as houses of refuge. Separate juvenile institutions for girls appeared in the mid-1880s, and these focused on teaching young women domestic and childrearing skills.

Early Evolution of Juvenile Courts

The first juvenile courts operated under the philosophy of parens patriae first articulated in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). This philosophy meant the state could act "as a parent," and gave juvenile courts the power to intervene whenever court officials felt intervention was in the best interests of the child. Any offense committed was secondary to the offender.

While parens patriae was designed to handle youth committing criminal acts, the discretion of this philosophy became increasingly broad and was constantly debated in court. Several pivotal cases ensued which helped to shape the juvenile justice system.

Get Professional Help Navigating the Juvenile Justice System

Many changes have been made to the juvenile justice system to best serve minors caught up in criminal activity. If you or your child has been charged with a juvenile offense, you'll want to get a handle on your case and prepare for the juvenile court process. Get started today by contacting a criminal defense attorney near you.

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