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Juvenile Courts

A System in Place for Children
A juvenile court is a special court that handles cases of delinquent, dependent, or neglected children under the age of 18. These courts are often a division of the state or county court system so each state follows separate mandates in the administration of juvenile courts. The same offense committed by youths in different states is subject to different rules and punishment. Some states only deal with youths up to age 17. Others allow serious cases, such asmurder or armed robbery, to be transferred to adult courts involving youthsas young as 11 years old. In most states, however, the juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with adult courts for youths between the ages of 15 and 18. Youths adjudicated delinquent and who have been judged guilty of unlawful acts receive both a juvenile and adult sentence. The juvenile sentence isserved first and adult sentence goes into effect in one of two circumstances:an incarcerated juvenile turns 21 and is sent to an adult prison to completehis or her sentence; or the juvenile is not responding to rehabilitation sothe adult sentence goes into effect.
Though each state administers juvenile courts differently, all children's courts are dedicated to protecting the child's privacy and best interests. Rather than determining the guilt of a child in court cases, emphasis is placed onthe best course of action to rehabilitate the child. A child comes before ajuvenile court in one of three circumstances: delinquency, status offenses, or abuse or neglect. Depending on the circumstances, the procedures of the juvenile court differ slightly.
Types of Cases Handled in Juvenile Court
Delinquency cases involve a child entering the juvenile court system becauseof criminal charges such as robbery, murder, assault, or other felonies. Since the late 1960s, youths charged with delinquency have the right to counsel,notice of charges, and protection against self-incrimination as well as the right to appeal the court's decision. A hearing determines whether the child will be released or held until a trial date. If the involved parties fail to work out a plea arrangement, the case goes to trial. A trial in juvenile courtis called an adjudication hearing but is similar in proceedings to a trial in adult court. The prosecuting attorney must prove the charges, otherwise theyouth is acquitted and goes free.
When a youth is convicted, a dispositional hearing is scheduled which is similar to a sentencing in adult court. Rather than punishment of the juvenile offender, the disposition focuses on rehabilitation and the needs of the child.Juvenile court judges have a wide range of alternatives available in determining the best course of action to take with the child. The most common actionis probation, but the child can be incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, sent to "boot" camp or special training schools, or the case may be dismissed by the court. The evaluations of psychologists and social workers are crucial in these decisions as is input from lawyers and counselors.
While offenders in delinquency cases have many rights, these rights are oftenmissing for status offenders. Status offenses are cases involving a juvenilecharged with an act that would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Status offenses are sometimes termed "pre-delinquency" cases meaning the juvenile is on the road to repeatedly breaking the law and being labeled a "juveniledelinquent." Running away, truancy from school, malevolence or aggressive behavior are examples of status offenses. Proceedings for status offenders do not involve proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a requirement in most other courtproceedings, nor does the offender have a right to counsel or protection against self-incrimination. Cases are often diverted from the court system intoa social program such as educational or training classes, foster care, familycounseling programs, or community-based involvement directed by a social worker.
Children may also enter the juvenile court system not as respondents to the court, but as victims to be protected by the court under parens patriaeor "the state as parent." In abuse and neglect proceedings, the court filesa petition against the parent or adult caregiver of the child. Abuse involvescruelty, mental and/or physical, toward the child or inappropriate physicalor sexual contact. Neglect involves the failure to care for, or provide the basic needs of, the child or to protect them from abuse by others.
The adult defendant has the right to an attorney. Depending on the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the child may have no counsel, may have counsel appointed for the child, or the court may appoint an "interim" guardian or otherrepresentative to act in the best interest of the child.
Unlike adult courts, all juvenile court sessions are closed to the public andall files are sealed. Often, the children's initials are used in court records and paperwork instead of full names to protect their identity from the public and the press. A major criticism of the juvenile court system is relatedto this issue of privacy. When juveniles are transferred to adult courts fortrial, their files and past history of delinquency remain protected under theprovisions of the juvenile justice system. Some states make this informationavailable to the judge only during arraignment or pre-trial hearings when the future of the case is determined.
Development of Juvenile Courts
Children have not always been afforded the rights and privileges they now have through a juvenile court system. During the early years of America, children were considered miniature adults at the age of seven and therefore responsible for their actions. Crimes committed by a child were handled in the same manner as if the crime were committed by an adult. Children were arrested, detained, tried, and sentenced in criminal court and sent to prison with adults.All prisoners were housed together, whether male or female, child or adult,murderer or pickpocket.
A wave of social consciousness enveloped the country during the early decadesof the nineteenth century. Opinions about children changed. Childhood becamean important transition between infancy and adulthood. Social activists fought for the protection of children. While some worked to remove children fromthe drudgery of day-long labor, others saw children victimized by a judicialsystem that placed impressionable children under the influence of hardened criminals. During the 1820s two groups emerged which helped shape the early juvenile justice system. The Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquencyadvocated the separation of adult and juvenile criminals. The Society for theReformation of Juvenile Delinquents worked on reforming children convicted of crimes. Rather than imprisonment, the children went to work schools. They lived in a dormitory, were trained for factory work, and jobbed out to manufacturers. The children were soon exploited by both the manufacturers and the school directors working long hours with all wages turned over to the directorsand many boys ran away.
It was apparent that juvenile justice needed to address the hardship and troubles delinquent children faced and to work to mold them into responsible future adults. The home environment of young lawbreakers was often troubled withabuse, neglect, and poverty. If the state became the parent under the parens patriae provision, delinquent children could be reformed.
Special juvenile courts were established as an informal alternative to criminal court for children. The first court of this type was organized in Cook County, Illinois in 1899. By 1925 all but two states had followed Illinois' example. Early juvenile courts advocated using a combination of punishment and counseling to reform delinquent youths. For extremely serious crimes, the juvenile court could waive their right to jurisdiction over the youth and the criminal justice system would take the case.
Because juvenile courts were concerned with reforming the child rather than determining guilt, lawyers and official court proceedings were deemed unnecessary. Children had no lawyers or representatives, nor did they have a true trial. Instead, a judge, magistrate, or social worker reviewed the complaint against the child and determined what the child needed as far as punishment and/or training to turn his or her life onto a positive course of growth.
A child's "needs" were often met by sending him to reform school until "rehabilitated" or reaching the age of 21. Children were also brought into the system because their parents could not control them. They might run away from home, miss too much school, or become unruly. These acts were termed "status offenses" and viewed by the juvenile court as pre-delinquent behavior. Status offenders were often placed in reform or training schools, just as juvenile delinquents were. As juvenile courts continued to evolve, differences in how each state handled these special courts also grew.
Regulating and Setting Standards
Though the social reformers who helped establish juvenile courts were fighting for the rights of children, juveniles entering the juvenile justice systemhad no legal rights. Three cases helped restore legal rights to children andestablish some standards in the juvenile courts across the country. Kent vs. United States (1966), and In re Gault (1967) restored to accused juveniles the right to a fair trial and the right to counsel. Kent, a 16-year-old on probation through juvenile court, was accused of robbery and rape.His case was waived from juvenile court to adult court and in so doing, Kentshould have been afforded the privileges given any adult accused of a crime.In re Gault was a landmark case altering the procedures and rights ofthe accused within the juvenile court system. Gault, a 15-year-old with no previous juvenile record, was accused and sentenced for making obscene phone calls to a neighbor. He was provided with no attorney, the witnesses and complainant did not appear at his hearing, and he was presumed guilty without proofand sent to reform school until the age of 21. His parents appealed the decision, and the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles had the right to due processof law, including representation and the right to cross-examine witnesses, even in juvenile court.
In re Winship (1970) determined that when juveniles were accused of offenses that would be crimes if committed by an adult, proof of guilt beyond areasonable doubt had to be established before conviction. Thanks to these three cases, when a juvenile appears in a juvenile court or his case is waivedto adult court, he has the right to counsel, to be informed of his offense, to cross-exam witnesses, to receive a transcript of the proceedings, to appealthe decision, and to be protected from self-incrimination. His accuser mustprovide a preponderance of evidence against him. In juvenile court, however,he does not have the right to a jury trial as long as the presiding judge isfair, impartial, and due process is served, according to McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1976).
In an effort to provide guidelines to state juvenile courts, and aid in reducing juvenile delinquency, two programs were established in 1974 within the United States Justice Department. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention assists state and local governments in improving the juvenile court system and preventing delinquency. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act provides grants for reforming juvenile court procedures and providing counseling and educational programs to prevent delinquency.
Criticisms and Conflicts
Despite efforts by the federal government to help curb juvenile crime rates,the 1980s experienced an increase in serious crimes committed by youths. "Between 1985 and 1995, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes rose 69 percent. For murders it rose 96 percent," according to Dan Carney reporting in theCongressional Quarterly. Critics of the juvenile court system blame the rise of drug use, specifically crack cocaine which triggered turf drug wars, an increase in handguns available on the streets and to youths, and the juvenile justice system for not making children aware of the consequences of their crimes.
Reforms are demanded of the system, especially by victims of juvenile criminals who express frustration with the way young criminals are handled. When a child is charged with robbery and assault or attempted murder, but is placed on probation and in the custody of parents who fail to supervise the child, victims see a great injustice being served. More and more opponents of the juvenile court system are calling for waiver of serious crimes to the adult courtsystem. Others disagree saying this will stigmatize the youth as a lost cause and encourage continued criminal behavior. They argue that youths tried inadult courts do not necessarily receive longer or tougher sentences because it is a first offense in criminal court, despite the number of appearances forthe same or similar offenses in juvenile court. Still others argue the entire juvenile court system should be abolished and all juveniles sentenced in adult courts. Individual states continue to try different methods to curb the high rate of juvenile delinquency. Where one state finds success, others implement the same procedure all in an effort to best protect and meet the needs of America's children.

Further Readings

  • Carney Dan, "Experts and Lawmakers Disagree . . . on Stemming Juvenile Crime." Congressional Quarterly, April 12, 1997, p. 846.
  • Gest, Ted, with Victoria Pope. "Crime Time Bomb." U.S. News & World Report, March 25, 1996, p. 28.
  • "Juvenile Injustice." America, September 28, 1996, p. 3.

Additional topics

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