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Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court - Retrenchment

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Within a few decades of the juvenile court's founding, some observers began to wonder whether lawmakers' ambitions for the juvenile court had been excessive. Public criticism of the juvenile court intensified. Juvenile courts, especially those in urban areas, began to exhibit the worst features of criminal courts. Caseloads swelled, courtrooms fell into disrepair, and staff became disenchanted and disinterested. During the 1950s, legal activists began to challenge the sweeping discretion given to juvenile court judges. One influential law review article charged juvenile courts with violating important principles of equal protection and argued that "rehabilitation may be substituted for punishment, but a Star Chamber cannot be substituted for a trial" (Mathew Beemsterboer, quoted in Manfredi, p. 39).

As with other social reform efforts, it is difficult to say whether frustration with the juvenile court was borne of faulty conceptualization or poor execution. The direction taken by juvenile justice policy, however, was unmistakable. During the latter half of the twentieth century, lawmakers began to infuse the juvenile court with the values and orientation of the criminal court. Many states altered their laws to reduce the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings and juvenile court records. Most states increased the legal formalities used in juvenile court and shifted the focus of the juvenile justice process away from individualized intervention. Instead, juvenile courts and juvenile justice agencies began to focus on public safety and offender accountability. In addition, nearly all states enacted laws to send more youth to criminal court where they could be tried and punished as adults. In the span of a single century, the American justice system had enthusiastically embraced and then largely rejected the concept of viewing the illegal behaviors of young people as something other than crime.

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