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."
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.
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