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History of the Juvenile Justice System

The first juvenile court appeared in Illinois in 1899. Before the juvenile court system in the U.S. was established, authorities considered young people "miniature adults," so youthful offenders generally faced the same punishments as adults. A better understanding of child development called for a more compassionate approach. This also led to the creation of the juvenile justice and delinquency system.

The following article summarizes the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States. It started from lessons learned during the progressive era to the development of juvenile courts.

Mass Immigration and Delinquency Among Indigent Children

During the Progressive Era (around 1890-1920), the U.S. experienced significant social change, especially in major cities like New York and Chicago. The Progressive Era was marked by:

  • Large waves of immigration
  • A dramatic increase in urbanization

These factors led to an increased number of youth on the streets. Many children below the age of majority (generally 18 years of age) became involved in juvenile crime. Naturally, this led to higher numbers of juvenile offenders found guilty of delinquent acts.

Initially, law enforcement authorities detained juveniles with adult offenders, regardless of their crime. Delinquency cases were mixed in with adults who had committed serious crimes.

However, local authorities realized that children institutionalized with adults started learning adult criminal behaviors, and recidivism rates increased. Recidivism refers to a person's tendency to re-offend after a criminal conviction.

Legislators developed a separate juvenile court system and state laws addressing criminal conduct by minors. The juvenile court has rules and processes separate from the adult criminal court. They also established separate correctional institutions and residential placement facilities for young offenders. Still, rules may vary depending on each state. The court may charge juvenile offenders and transfer them to adult courts, depending on each case.

Emergence of the Juvenile Justice System

Institutions like the English Bridewell influenced early juvenile institutions in the United States. These juvenile centers focus on community-based rehabilitative measures. Many acted as training schools, teaching trade and life skills.

These facilities centered on the idea that “criminality" was a skill learned by youthful offenders to survive. Legislatures and others believed that teaching the youth other skills would help them become contributing members of society. This move also shaped the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

Three other types of juvenile institutions began to appear in the United States during the Progressive Era:

  • Houses of refuge
  • New reformatories
  • Separate institutions for juvenile females

Keep reading to learn more about these early juvenile institutions.

Houses of Refuge

Houses of Refuge functioned as an alternative to adult penitentiaries. Rather than hand out punishment, they aimed to rehabilitate youths through:

  • Sanctions
  • Religious training
  • Apprenticeships in various trades
  • Education

A house of refuge often used a military model to promote discipline and order.

New Reformatories

Authorities established new reformatories in the mid to late 1800s. Here, authorities housed juveniles in cottages and foster homes, often on farms. They emphasized a family-type organization and stressed hard physical labor. The youths were also trained for agricultural and industrial careers.

Separate Juvenile Institutions

Separate juvenile correctional facilities for girls appeared in the mid-1880s. These institutions focused on teaching young women domestic and childrearing skills.

Establishment of First Juvenile Courts

In 1899, the first juvenile courts were established in Denver and Chicago. These courts started the initial experiments in the juvenile justice system. In New York, for instance, a few judges held separate adjudication hearings for juvenile offenders. Meanwhile, the courts placed juvenile delinquents in probation programs in some states. The courts also assumed the responsibility of protecting abandoned and neglected children.

Early Evolution of Juvenile Court

The juvenile courts worked under the doctrine of parens patriae. This philosophy meant the state could act "as a parent" to the juveniles, so juvenile court judges could intervene when it was in the child's best interest.

Parens patriae initially focused on criminal acts, but intervention by the government in juvenile cases became increasingly broad and juvenile court jurisdiction was constantly debated in court. Several pivotal cases ensued, which helped to shape the juvenile justice system. The broad interpretation of this doctrine also led to many landmark court decisions.

Modern Juvenile Detention

Juvenile courts did not decide on the innocence or guilt of the juvenile offenders. Unlike other criminal courts, juvenile courts look at the child's needs and the reason for their criminal acts or misbehavior.

Unlike the adult criminal justice system, juvenile court proceedings need a specialized understanding. The adjudication emphasizes due process and the best possible outcomes for juveniles. It can range from probation to community service to confinement in juvenile correctional facilities.

By 1910, most states that had juvenile courts started hiring probation officers. Probation officers for youthful offenders have several duties, including:

  • Investigating the family and social background of the troubled minor
  • Preparing reports for court judges
  • Ensuring the youths abide by regulations to prevent behaviors like truancy or running away

By 1925, almost all 50 states created juvenile courts. The progressive idea of the juvenile court system was rapidly adopted. However, the new juvenile courts faced some criticism. Critics argued that juvenile court judges had too much power. They added that juveniles had no due process or lawyers to protect them. The youthful offenders remained without their fundamental rights.

Then in 1967, the Supreme Court heard In Re Gault (387 U.S. 1). In this case, a juvenile court judge in Arizona put Gerry Gault, a 15-year-old offender, in a reform school after he allegedly made an obscene phone call. The minor had to stay in reform school until he reached 21 years old. In other words, the minor received a six-year sentence. To put it in perspective, the maximum sentence for adults for making obscene phone calls was two months in jail and a $50 fine.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Arizona juvenile court to confine him. This decision stems from the Court denying Gault notification of his rights and representation of a lawyer. Now, the courts recognize the rights of juvenile offenders to have a competent lawyer and other due process rights.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act

In 1974, Congress first enacted the Juve­nile Jus­tice and Delin­quen­cy Pre­ven­tion Act (JJDPA). This marked the efforts to improve the juvenile justice system and prevent delinquency. The Act changed the treatment of nonoffenders and juveniles who committed status offenses. It also required states to remove nonoffenders and noncriminal status offenders from correctional facilities.

The deinstitutionalization decreased the number of youths held in detention facilities. Now, new legislation strengthens and reaffirms the protections for the youth. In 2018 the Juvenile Justice Reform Act reauthorized the JJDPA. The primary federal legislation ensures four safeguards for youths:

  • It avoids the detention of youths for age-specific crimes. This includes status offenses such as truancy, running away, or breaking curfew.
  • It limits the placement of juvenile offenders in adult facilities, except in some instances.
  • It ensures that youths are incarcerated separately from adult offenders.
  • It mandates states to address and recognize ethnic and racial imbalances in their juvenile justice proceedings.

Juvenile court judges may still send minors found guilty of violent crimes to institutions, but the courts prefer to place nonviolent youths on probation. The court may also place them with their families or foster families, making them a family responsibility as opposed to an institution's responsibility.

Some cases result in waiver or transfer of juveniles to adult prison. This referral to adult prisons applies particularly to youths convicted of serious offenses.

Seek Legal Advice From a Criminal Law Attorney

The impact of juvenile records can be long-lasting. Thus, a solid grasp of the court processes and an understanding of your rights are essential. In addition, the rules related to juvenile offenders may vary in every state. Some states have various maximum and minimum ages for juvenile delinquency cases. It is also crucial to understand dependency issues. This factor is vital when looking at mental health and child welfare concerns.

If you or your loved ones are facing legal challenges, it is crucial to seek professional help. A criminal defense attorney's legal knowledge and skills will be helpful as you navigate court proceedings. Their legal advice is crucial, especially for youths facing jury trials, incarceration in a juvenile correctional facility, or juvenile probation.

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