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Juvenile Justice

Juvenile Courts

Reformers including Chicago social worker Jane Addams (1860–1935) argued for a separate legal system for juveniles to teach them the proper way to behave. Some supported this idea for the sake of the children, others simply feared immigrant street youths. As a result, Illinois was the first state to establish a separate court system for juveniles in 1899. In these new courts, specially trained judges had many choices in how to deal with youthful offenders.

Judges acting like parents instead of doling out harsh punishment dominated for the next century. During this period, the law defined a juvenile as a person less than sixteen years of age. Rather than prosecute juveniles for a crime, courts placed them in reform schools or with foster parents. These juveniles then remained under court supervision until age twenty-one.

To further reduce the stigma of formal courts, the terms used in juvenile proceedings were borrowed from civil rather than criminal courts. For example, prosecutors charged juvenile offenders using petitions rather than indictments. Juveniles were not arraigned before the court upon their arrest, but given an intake hearing instead. In addition, court proceedings were not called trials, but hearings. Juveniles, rather than being found guilty, were ruled delinquent. Less proof was needed to find a youth delinquent, called a "preponderance of evidence," rather than the criminal court's requirement of an evidence level considered to be "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Juvenile Crime Statistics

The National Center for Juvenile Justice offered the following statistics on their Internet Web site for 1999: law enforcement arrested some 2.4 million juveniles, and for every 1,000 juvenile delinquency cases handled, 238 resulted in probation and 93 received residential placement.

On a given day, October 27, 1999, nearly 109,000 juveniles were held in residential placement nationwide. Of all juveniles who went to court, about 25 percent were charged with violent crimes. Fifty-seven percent of the juvenile cases were handled formally through court proceedings and 43 percent were handled informally by law officers or court workers.

Of the status offenses, about 25 percent of runaway cases, 40 percent of those judged unruly, 34 percent of alcohol cases, and 47 percent of truancy cases resulted in formal probation. For all offenses committed in the United States in 1999, juvenilescommitted 16 percent of the violent crimes, or 68,000 arrests, and 32 percent of property crimes. Property offenses tended to occur in mid-teen years and violent offenses in later teen years. Juveniles comprised almost 28 percent of all arrests with juvenile males accounting for over 16 percent of total male arrests and juvenile females almost 22 percent of all female arrests.

About 1 percent of all juvenile cases are transferred to adult criminal court. Of those, 55 percent were black Americans and 90 percent were male. Of those transferred to adult courts, 75 percent resulted in prison sentences. Of those sent to prison 61 percent were for violent crimes, 22 percent for property crimes, and 16 percent for drug or other public disorder crimes. Approximately 2 percent of the adult prison population is teens, amounting to some 15,400 juveniles. Some states had only a few juveniles in prison, while Florida and Connecticut had over 500.

Black Americans made up 15 percent of the U.S. juvenile population in 1999 but accounted for 25 percent of all juvenile arrests, almost 41 percent of violent crimes, and over 27 percent of property crimes.

In determining treatment for young offenders, courts tried to take the best interest of the juvenile into account. Protecting the constitutional rights of the child was not a concern, since the court was supposed to be acting on his or her behalf. Rather than hearing arguments by attorneys, judges made decisions based on the facts presented by the plaintiff and a background investigation of the juvenile.

By 1925 almost all states had juvenile systems using the Illinois law as a model. Although varying slightly from state to state, eighteen generally became the age of transition from juvenile to adult criminal courts. Much of the twentieth century was a period in which the courts and the public clearly favored rehabilitation over punishment for youth. The states increasingly intervened in family issues, creating status offenses in addition to criminal laws. The government considered these lesser violations to be a stepping-stone to criminal behavior.

Into the 1960s juvenile justice remained informal and flexible, records were kept confidential, and the media was not allowed in the courtroom. The court kept only two records, the original police report and the report of a probation officer who interviewed anyone familiar with the juvenile and the case. During the hearing, the judge would question the juvenile defendant and witnesses; unlike other courts, however, the juvenile did not have the right to an attorney or to cross-examine witnesses.

In 1947 Congress passed the federal Juvenile Courts Act to establish a more consistent informal process for juveniles among the states and to emphasize treatment (rehabilitation) over punishment.

In the twentieth century, children began to receive special treatment in the judicial system. Here, a juvenile receives justice in the privacy of a judge's office rather than in a public courtroom. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice - Changing Social Attitudes Toward Children, Reformers, Juvenile Courts, Juvenile Crime Statistics, Changes In The System