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Juvenile Justice - Changes In The System

juveniles court criminal approach

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, thoughts on how to treat juveniles in the criminal justice system changed as the public became increasingly concerned about delinquent behavior. Some states changed to a more formal and harsher process in the 1950s as criticism of the juvenile system increased.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several rulings strengthening civil liberty protections in adult criminal courts. Supporters of juvenile justice feared youthful offenders were not benefiting from such decisions because of the informality of the juvenile court system. By protecting juveniles from the harshness of the adult system, they were being denied their constitutional protections as well. As a result, adults enjoyed more constitutional safeguards than juveniles.

Concerns over the rights of youthful offenders led to a series of Supreme Court decisions affecting juvenile courts beginning in the late 1960s. In 1967 the Court ruled that constitutional protections were not only for adults but for juveniles as well. Parents had to be notified in a timely manner concerning charges against their child and juveniles had a right to a lawyer, the right of protection against self-incrimination, and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

These safeguards, known as due process requirements, also stated that the court had to notify juveniles of charges and hearings. In a 1970 case the Court increased the level of proof needed to find juveniles guilty. The level of proof changed from a preponderance (significant amount) of evidence to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as in adult criminal courts.

Following the initial Supreme Court rulings on juvenile justice procedures, Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act in 1972. The act set out general rules for state juvenile justice systems, such as keeping juveniles separate from adults in jails and prisons, and required juveniles to have a court-appointed guardian. In another case affecting juvenile justice, the Supreme Court ruled in Breed v. Jones (1975) that a person could not be tried for the same offense in both juvenile and criminal courts.

A New Justice Approach

General disappointment with the juvenile justice system in the early twenty-first century led to exploring alternative processes. One approach, called the "restorative justice approach," came into use in several countries including the United States. Called a community-based approach, in these cases the juvenile offender, the victim, their families, and several members of the community meet to repair the harm done. A person not associated with either of the parties guides the group to an agreed upon consequence or punishment for the juvenile. Positive results with this approach led to increasing interest and proposals that less serious juvenile offenders be treated through such community-based programs, leaving the more serious cases for the adult criminal justice system.

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