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The juvenile court is a relatively young institution in the United States, officially established in Chicago in 1899. The establishment of this court roughly corresponds to changing attitudes about childhood and represented a major development in separating youthful offenders from hardened criminals. Despite its laudable philosophy and numerous accomplishments, the juvenile court also has been the target of widespread criticism from a variety of sources. Partly in response to some of these criticisms, and partly as a result of Supreme Court intervention, the juvenile court has undergone numerous changes since it first came into operation. Probably one of the most prominent changes has been in its shift toward a more formal legalistic approach to juvenile criminal offenses.

The introduction of elements of due process and increased involvement of attorneys has altered its once omnipotent procedures.


1. Understand the concept of due process as expressed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

2. Explain the motives and ideology of the Child Savers together with their positive and negative impacts upon the juvenile justice process.

3. Understand the historical development of the juvenile court.

4. Understand the relationship between juvenile courts and the media.

5. Provide an overview of the implications of the Gault decision and other major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and their impact upon the legal processing of cases involving juveniles.

6. Describe and explain the procedures of contemporary juvenile court.

7. Identify some of the major criticisms and limitations of the contemporary juvenile court.


I. INTRODUCTION (pp. 331-332)

The juvenile court fits our concept of public arena in much the same way as the schools and the streets. Although it conducts private hearings, the juvenile court symbolically represents society's public disapproval of a youth's behavior and the official response to delinquency by the juvenile justice system.


Much of U.S. law is founded on British common law which exempted children under the age of 7 from legal responsibility for misconduct because they were considered incapable of mens rea—which means "evil intent" or "guilty mind."

A.18th- and 19th-Century Criminology: Much of it, both in theory and in practice, was structured on the traditional assumption that punishment was the best and most appropriate deterrent of crime.

B.19th-Century Developments: The way youthful offenders were treated was altered. These developments included separate correctional facilities for children 7 to 14 who had been convicted in criminal court and using probation or supervised release. These changes represented a desire to hold young law violators accountable for their actions, but also reflected a movement toward handling juvenile offenders differently from adult criminals.


Steps to provide specialized correctional treatment to children and youths were initiated by a group of influential social reformers in the late 19th century called the Child Savers. They were instrumental in shifting the focus away from the criminal nature of delinquency to what was generally considered to be a more humanistic approach built around the medical model and the rehabilitative ideal.

A. Medical Model: In this model, crime was viewed as a kind of social pathology, and young people manifested the antisocial behavior symptoms of criminality as a result of being exposed to it in their environment.

B. Rehabilitative Ideal: This emphasized the temporary and reversible nature of adolescent crime, if remedial measures were strenuously applied at an early age.

C. Child Savers: This group had its greatest impact in changing the reformatory system by implementing principles that would later deny multitudes of young people their basic constitutional right to due process.

IV. THE JUVENILE COURT (pp. 335-337)

A mounting pressure for a juvenile system that incorporated specialized processing of juvenile delinquents culminated in 1899 when the Illinois legislature passed the Juvenile Court Act, creating the first statewide court especially for children. Today, there is a juvenile court in virtually every American jurisdiction, with approximately 3,000 courts hearing juvenile cases. Haskell and Yablonsky (1978) reported that in 40 states juveniles were handled in courts whose primary purpose was some other function; in those states, a day is set aside to hear juvenile cases.

A. New Vocabulary: To distinguish the proceedings of the juvenile court from those of the criminal court where adults are brought to trial, a new vocabulary emerged. Rather than a criminal complaint, a juvenile court "petition" is issued ordering the accused offender to appear in court. Similarly, arraignments have come to be called "initial hearings," and convictions have been renamed "findings of involvements." Finally, sentences have been replaced by the more informal and less threatening term "disposition."

B. More Formal Atmosphere: In the 1920s a juvenile hearing often resembled an informal conference, but today more juveniles and their families secure legal counsel as hearings have taken on a more formal atmosphere.


Fictional television programs and motion pictures often show juveniles involved in crime and interacting with police, but they rarely provide a glimpse inside juvenile court. Every state has adopted a media policy similar to that of the state of California where all juvenile court records and proceedings are confidential. When older juveniles are involved in serious crimes, however, they may go through a waiver process and be adjudicated as adults and remanded to adult criminal court where their cases are open to the public and the media.


The increasing public sentiment that we must “get tough” on crime and criminals has led to a popular movement to certify juveniles who commit serious violent crimes as adults and to remand them to adult criminal courts for trial.

A. Four Criteria: Four criteria are generally considered in waiving a case: age, seriousness of the offense, preponderance of evidence, and amenability of treatment. Ultimately, juvenile judges have tremendous discretion in this decision.

B. Reoffending Rates: A 2003 study conducted on 2,700 juveniles who were remanded to adult criminal courts found that reoffending rates were greater among those who were transferred to adult courts than among those who were retained in the juvenile system.


Juvenile courts were established for the protection of children. Initially they ignored the concept of due process; consequently, basic constitutional rights were not accorded to juveniles in their hearings. Several U.S. Supreme Court decisions have impacted the issue of due process in the juvenile justice system. The 1967 Gault decision was seen as a landmark decision by providing a measure of due process in juvenile hearings. However, this decision did not provide to juveniles all the constitutional rights afforded to adult criminal suspects.

  1. Kent v. United States (1966): The Supreme Court ruled that in order for a juvenile court to waive its exclusive jurisdiction, a hearing must be held. Justice Fortas stated that a “child receives the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”
  1. In re Winship (1970): The Court ruled that proof beyond a reasonable doubt was necessary in a juvenile court hearing where a crime had been committed.
  1. Breed v. Jones (1975): Due process rights were guaranteed to juveniles when the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles were protected against double jeopardy.
  1. McKiever v. Pennsylvania (1971): The Court ruled that juveniles were not guaranteed the right to a trial by jury. Approximately three-fourths of the states follow that ruling and do not provide jury trials for juveniles.

E. Schall v. Martin (1984): The Court held that youths could be held without bail if they were being held for their own protection or the protection of society. It appears that in some areas, the extent of due process gained granted juveniles must be determined on a case-by-case basis.


The juvenile court is generally characterized by three main operational procedures. The intake procedure typically begins when the juvenile receives a referral on a particular youth. Adjudication refers to making a judgment or ruling as neglected, dependent, or delinquent. This phase of the juvenile court proceeding is analogous to the trial phase of the adult judicial proceedings. Disposition is the stage of the hearing most analogous to sentencing in a criminal court.

  1. Judicial Discretion: Occurring after adjudication, it is the process by which the judge must decide the best way to handle the juvenile's case. The judge must attempt to do what is best for the child while also protecting the community and preserving the integrity of the law.

B Race, Age, and Sex: Just as the police are influenced by a variety of extralegal factors such as race, age, and sex of the offender in deciding how to handle juveniles, so are the courts. Perry (1985) found that blacks and youths from lower socioeconomic backgrounds typically received harsher dispositions in juvenile court. Females were more likely to be treated more harshly than their male counterparts regardless of seriousness of the offense.


The role of attorneys in juvenile court is not nearly as clear-cut as it is in adult criminal court. It has been only since the Gault decision of 1967 that they have been formally introduced into the juvenile court proceeding; since then, attorneys have played an increasingly important role in the contemporary juvenile court.

A. District Attorney: The District Attorney is an elected attorney to represent the state in criminal cases; therefore, we can view this position as the law-enforcing officer in the median position between the police officer and the juvenile court judge. This officer may make recommendations to the judge regarding whether the case should be handled in juvenile court or transferred to adult criminal court.

B. Defense Attorney: The defense attorney for the juvenile performs a variety of roles in the juvenile court such as a guardian if the juvenile is very young, mentally incompetent, or not accompanied by parents. Another is the advocate role where the attorney attempts to represent a client’s best legal interests and defends the juveniles against the charges outlined in the court petition. However, because of the less formal atmosphere of the juvenile court, and the more related rules on testimony and evidence, the youth's attorney may not be able to protect the youth in some of the same ways a criminal lawyer can defend an adult in criminal court. In fact, Mahoney discovered that a request for a jury trial for a youth may produce negative results and the court could penalize a youth who asked for a jury trial.


Since 1899, when the first juvenile court was established, it has undergone a great deal of scrutiny and criticism from different sectors in society.

  1. Too Easy: One of the most prevalent criticisms has been that the juvenile courts are "too easy" on juveniles and have a tendency to coddle and protect what are basically just young criminals. This has been mainly due to the fact that the juvenile court was founded on the philosophies of protection and rehabilitation.
  1. Too Hard: Conversely, another criticism of the juvenile court has been that it is "too hard" on juveniles and tends to overreact to relatively minor offenses. There may be a tendency on the part of some juvenile judges to treat relatively minor offenses very seriously in an effort to impress upon the juvenile that any further law violation will not be tolerated. Nevertheless, the punishment ideology appears to dominate today’s juvenile court.
  1. Lack of Due Process: The absence of total due process continues as another point of criticism of the juvenile court. Much of the concern now focuses upon preserving the rights of youths charged with status offenses. Since these youths have not violated criminal laws and are more likely to be adjudicated "in need of supervision" as opposed to "delinquent," their hearings are often much more informal.
  1. Too Broad: Perhaps the most persistent criticism leveled at the juvenile court has been that its jurisdiction is too broad. Feld (2009) points out that juvenile courts have much broader discretion than adult criminal courts, a fact that may lead to age, race, and gender bias in court decisions.


One of the difficulties faced by the juvenile courts resides in the fact that juvenile courts vary from state to state in their size, nature, jurisdiction, and procedures. David Aday (1986) created a typology of juvenile courts based on important variations in court structure and procedure: (1) the traditional court attempts to perpetuate a social service orientation and is more likely to detain juveniles before their hearing, the largest percentage of which are likely to be placed on formal probation; and (2) the due process court is dominated by legal factors, especially the nature of offenses, and detains far fewer juveniles, electing to simply warn and release almost 73 percent of those with whom it comes in contact.


The future of the juvenile court is somewhat unclear. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals all have different views on what the future should hold for the juvenile court, but almost all agree that some changes must and will occur. While there is much disagreement over how to reform the juvenile court, there is some consensus that at least five changes are in order: (1) Limit its jurisdiction; (2) operate under the provisions of due process; (3) be administered by competent judges; (4) have adequate court personnel; and (5) have adequate responsibility of alternatives for disposition.


1. Invite a local judge who hears cases involving delinquent youth to speak to your class about how juveniles are treated in his or her court. Ascertain if the judge has any recommendations for changes regarding the treatment of juveniles who appear in court.

2. Consult your state office of Attorney General and request appropriate information regarding juvenile court procedures as they affect juvenile delinquents. Identify the various procedures used in your state to respond to delinquent youth.

3. Ask any attorney who serves as a defense lawyer in juvenile cases to conduct a presentation in class regarding his or her responsibilities in that capacity.

4. Request that any official from the district attorney's office who has responsibility for juvenile cases visit your class and discuss his or her responsibilities in that capacity.

5. Research juvenile sentences in your state and see if there are large differences by age, race, and sex.


The end of the 19th century was very favorable for the creation of the juvenile court in Chicago, mainly as a result of the so-called Child Savers.

The child-saving movement in Chicago was mobilized through the efforts of feminist reformers who were quite concerned about the adverse changes taking place in the traditional family system. The women leading this movement were Jane Adams, Louise Bowen, and Julia Lathorpe. These leaders were quite influential both through their parents and husbands, and used their influence to instigate special laws for juveniles and create new institutions for their reformation. Despite their good intentions, it is alleged that these feminist reformers imposed their puritan middle-class family standards on lower-class children. They wanted to reestablish the authority of parents or parent-surrogates over children whose parents had been lost during industrialization and urbanization.*

The first juvenile court was set up in Cook County, Chicago. The use of juvenile courts spread gradually, assisted by untrained probation officers, as early probation officers were mostly volunteer ladies.

The real jolt to juvenile courts came in 1960s as a result of the landmark verdicts in the Gault and Kent cases. The Supreme Court was of the opinion that the juvenile courts tended to be oblivious of the rights of the youth. The juvenile courts have not been the same since then. These two cases impressed on the courts that due process was more therapeutic for the youth than the denial of it. However, as Bynum and Thompson point out, the Supreme Court, beginning in the 1980s, has restricted many of the rights granted to juveniles since those decisions in the 1960s.

* Platt, A. M. The Child Savers, The Invention of Delinquency, 2nd ed. Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977. p. 3. Cited in Sandhu, H. S., and Heasley, C. W., Improving Juvenile Justice, 1981. Human Sciences Press, New York.