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Modern Criminal Justice - Juvenile Justice

juveniles adult system offenders

How to treat juvenile offenders has received considerable attention throughout the twentieth century. Ideas on how to make juvenile justice more effective changed through the decades. Illinois was the first state to separate juveniles from the regular justice system in 1899 when it passed the Juvenile Court Act. Reformers were dismayed that youths charged with crimes were placed in facilities along with hardened adult criminals. The new juvenile system was for youthful offenders under seventeen years of age. In addition, the justice records of juveniles were kept confidential. By 1925 almost all the states had juvenile systems. Although varying slightly from state to state, teen offenders who had turned eighteen were generally transferred to the adult criminal justice system.

In 1947 Congress passed the federal Juvenile Courts Act establishing a more consistent informal process for juveniles among the states. Emphasizing rehabilitation (treatment) over punishment, judges had considerable flexibility in deciding juvenile cases.

Over the next half century, thoughts on the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system changed steadily. With rising concern over juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, the public felt the juvenile system was too lenient or relaxed. Some states changed to more adult-like processes.

By the later 1960s the public was less concerned about juvenile crime. In 1972 Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act setting out general rules for state juvenile justice systems. States once again kept juveniles separate from adults in jails and prisons, and every juvenile was given a court-appointed guardian. Greater emphasis was also placed on preventing youths from turning to crime.

By 1980 youth gangs and gun violence caught the public's attention. Juveniles were sent in greater numbers to adult courts to face more severe punishment, including the possibility of the death sentence for those over sixteen years of age.

Despite a decline in juvenile crime rates by the mid-1990s, the tougher approach remained. A series of school shootings kept juvenile offenders in the news and fears of crime high. Some states even passed laws making parents legally responsible for their children's criminal acts. In the early twenty-first century, the distinction between the juvenile and adult justice systems remained less than during earlier decades of the twentieth century. (See chapter 19 for more information on juvenile justice.)

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