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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Expansion

courts patriae parens youth

The nation's first juvenile court opened in Chicago in 1899. By 1909, twenty states had established juvenile courts and all but a few had done so by the end of the 1920s. Although each jurisdiction established its juvenile court system with its own procedures and structure, juvenile courts across the United States were generally designed to focus on early intervention and rehabilitation and to emphasize an individualized approach to youth crime. Juvenile court judges based their decisions on the unique circumstances of each offender rather than simply the severity of the offense. The goal of criminal (adult) courts was to determine guilt and dispense the right punishment for each crime. Juvenile courts were asked to investigate the causes of bad behavior and then devise a package of sanctions and services to put juveniles back on the right track.

To give juvenile courts the flexibility they would need to fulfill this mission, lawmakers allowed the juvenile court process to meet a significantly lower standard of evidence and due process. Juvenile law was codified entirely separately from criminal law. The facts of a case were not used to establish guilt but to document the occurrence of delinquency. Judges were not required to follow detailed procedures or to adhere to complex legal rules. There were fewer legal formalities in order to free the juvenile court to intervene quickly and comprehensively with each youth accused of violating the law. Even when a juvenile was merely suspected of criminal involvement, a juvenile court judge could take jurisdiction over the matter, place the youth on probation, or even hold the youth in secure custody.

The juvenile court's expansive authority was derived from several concepts in English legal tradition. The most important of these was parens patriae, or roughly "the nation as parent." Parens patriae suggested that the government had an obligation and a duty to look after the interests of children when natural parents were unable to do so. Long before the concept was discovered by American reformers, England's Chancery Courts had been invoking parens patriae to take temporary custody of land and property that belonged to the orphaned children of wealthy families. In the mid-1800s, American courts had used parens patriae as a justification for placing recalcitrant children in "houses of refuge," an early type of reformatory. America's juvenile court founders argued that parens patriae also allowed the government to take charge of any child that was destitute, neglected, or ill behaved. This arrangement gave the juvenile court an unprecedented degree of power and discretion.

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