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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Origins

youth juveniles adult criminal

Young people who violate the law before reaching the legal age of adulthood are referred to as juveniles in order to indicate that they are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court rather than the criminal (or adult) court. Technically, juveniles cannot be arrested for committing crimes because the criminal code does not apply to young people under a certain age (usually age seventeen or eighteen). Rather than charging them with a crime, juveniles are usually arrested for committing acts of delinquency. A twenty-five year old who steals a car is arrested for the crime of auto theft. A fifteen year old who does the same thing is taken into custody for an act of delinquency that would have been considered auto theft if that youth had been an adult.

America's system of juvenile law was founded on the premise that, due to their immaturity, young people accused of crimes should be handled differently than adults. Ideally, the juvenile court is more responsive than an adult court would be to the social and developmental characteristics of children and youth. The services and sanctions imposed by juvenile courts should be designed to do more than punish wrongdoing. They should address the causes of the youth's misbehavior and eventually restore the youth to full and responsible membership in his or her family as well as the larger community. Some contemporary critics doubt whether this mission is achievable or even desirable in all cases.

Juvenile courts emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period in American history known as the Progressive era. Practitioners, policymakers, and historians often see the juvenile court's history quite differently. Some characterize the founding of the first juvenile court as the culmination of many years of effort to guard the safety and well-being of youth in the justice system. In this view, the invention of the juvenile court was sparked by social reformers and activists who understood that children are different from adults and should be held less culpable for their unlawful behavior. Reformers worked to create a separate juvenile court, both to protect youth from harm and to provide earlier and more rehabilitative interventions for young offenders.

There is another, entirely different explanation for the emergence of the juvenile court. Historians and sociologists have noted that despite the rhetoric of social reformers, many early proponents of the juvenile court were interested in crime control. Before the development of juvenile courts, young offenders appeared in criminal court alongside adult defendants. Judges and jurors found many youth innocent or simply dismissed the charges against them. Acquittal was preferable to sending a young defendant to a nineteenth-century prison, especially when the defendant appeared socially and physically immature. In the late 1800s, police and prosecutors in many of the nation's large cities were frustrated with the criminal court's inability to sanction young offenders. They welcomed the idea of a separate juvenile court system. Such a court, they argued, would be more capable of responding to juveniles on their own terms and more likely to intervene, even in cases of relatively minor offenses and very young defendants.

Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Expansion [next]

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