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Juvenile Law and Justice

Further Readings

Juvenile law refers to that body of law dealing with juveniles, or persons who are not yet adults. The definition of a juvenile varies from state to stateaccording to the age at which a person is deemed to reach adulthood. In at least one state (Wyoming), the age of adulthood is 19; for some legal purposes, other states set the age at 16, and still others set the age at 17 or 18.
Juvenile law is a special blend of law created especially for juveniles to account for their immaturity and innocence. There are three basic categories ofchildren over which juvenile courts have jurisdiction: children accused of committing a crime; children who are in need of protection from the state; andchildren who have committed a status offense. A status offense is conduct that is prohibited only to children, and not to adults. Examples of status offenses include failure to attend school (known as truancy), failure to obey reasonable parental controls, cigarette smoking, drinking of alcohol, possessionof pornography, and flight from home.
Before the creation of juvenile law in the late nineteenth century, childrenin the United States generally were treated under the law as adults. For criminal behavior, only children under the age of seven were immune from criminalprosecution. A child of seven or older, if convicted of a crime warranting incarceration, was sentenced to prison with adults. During the nineteenth century, some states created separate work farms and reform schools to serve as secure facilities for children. That was, however, the extent of the special treatment for children until the Progressive political movement seized on theissue.
In the late nineteenth century, large cities were fast becoming repositoriesfor the country's underclass as massive industrialization forced growing numbers into poverty. Progressive legislators, concerned about the swelling ranksof poor, unsupervised children in urban areas, argued that children were different from adults and proposed that they should be treated differently underthe law. Along with mandatory school attendance, the Progressives proposed anew court system for troubled children. Troubled children were not "black-guard" children or inherently bad. Rather, they simply were trapped in bad conditions. In other words, there were no bad children; there simply were children in bad situations. To keep their communities from being overrun by needy children in bad situations, state governments became like a surrogate parent topoor and unsupervised children.
Juvenile Courts
Reform-minded legislators in Illinois created the first separate court for children in the state's Juvenile Court Act of 1899. The juvenile court established in Illinois became the model for juvenile court systems across the country. State legislatures began to create juvenile courts and to give them a tremendous amount of authority to control a wide variety of children. In Illinois, this included
any child who for any reason is destitute or homeless or abandoned; or dependent on the public for support; or has not properparental care or guardianship; or who habitually begs or receives alms; or who is found living in any house of ill fame or with any vicious or disreputable person . . . and any child under the age of 8 years who is found peddling or selling any article or singing or playing any musical instrument upon the street or giving any public entertainment.
Juvenile courts couldplace such children with a foster family or in a reform school for any of these status offenses.
The first juvenile courts were intended to benefit needy juveniles who neededthe basic necessities of life and a measure of adult guidance. By requiringthat the state care for needy children, the act swept many children into thecourt system where the state could monitor their maturation. Under the original Illinois model, juveniles found to be within the juvenile court's jurisdiction remained under the court's control until they reached the age of 21.
Juvenile courts also de-criminalized juvenile transgressions. No longer wouldjuvenile crime be prosecuted in adult court, and no longer would the proceeding be called a prosecution. Instead, juvenile criminal proceedings were called "hearings" or "adjudications." Juveniles were not charged in an indictmentor information, but instead were brought before the court with a "petition."Juveniles were not tried before juries, but before a juvenile court judge. If a juvenile was found to have committed a crime, he or she was adjudged "delinquent" instead of guilty. Sentences were fashioned according to the best interests of the juvenile instead of inflicting punishment to fit the crime. Juveniles were supposed to be rehabilitated, not punished. The form and substance of juvenile court, from start to finish, was designed to treat juveniles with more tenderness than was afforded in the adult court system.
The "System"
For all the tenderness associated with the age group, the new juvenile courtscast a large net, and many juveniles found themselves involuntarily caught up in a system of courts and state agencies. Foster homes and reform schools,though well intentioned, were unattractive to many juveniles, and many poor parents were forcibly deprived of their children. Despite its shortcomings, the juvenile court system was arguably successful in reigning in a growing problem of youth vagrancy and crime. The power of the juvenile law model grew inpopularity throughout the twentieth century, and all states now maintain a separate juvenile code in their statutes. The federal government has a juvenilecourt system, but it only deals with juveniles under the age of eighteen whoare accused of committing a federal crime.
When a juvenile is suspected of committing a crime, he or she may be arrestedand brought to jail and then released or detained through the adjudication.The jail may or may not be the same secure facility that houses adults; juveniles should be kept separate from adult populations, but that is not always possible. At the adjudication, juveniles have the right to: notice of the charges; confront and question witnesses; present testimony; be free from self-incrimination; and be represented by an attorney. The prosecution has discretion to charge as much or as little as he or she sees fit. In any case, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the juvenile committed the criminal act that is charged; this is the burden of proof that is required toconvict adults. Juveniles accused of crimes do not have the right to a free,court-appointed attorney unless they are accused of a serious crime that warrants commitment to a secure facility. In most cases, though, a juvenile courtjudge will appoint an attorney to represent a juvenile who cannot afford tohire an attorney.
If a juvenile accused of a crime is found to have committed the offense, he or she is adjudged "delinquent." The disposition of the case is then in the discretion of the juvenile court judge. Depending on the crime committed, a juvenile delinquent may be placed on probation, ordered to perform community service, ordered to pay a fine, ordered to pay restitution, or ordered to perform, or refrain from, any number of specific acts. These measures may be combined in any way by the juvenile court judge.
The most severe disposition of a juvenile adjudication is placement of the juvenile in a secure facility. These facilities are called reformatories, youthdevelopment centers, or some other name that connotes rehabilitation. Although the facilities are designed to rehabilitate and educate juvenile delinquents, they are similar to prisons in that they are structured to prevent escape. A juvenile may be committed to such a facility for a length of days or years, depending on the offense committed. In any case, a juvenile may be held ina secure facility for an adjudication of juvenile delinquency only until a prescribed age. This age varies from state to state and ranges anywhere from 18 to 21 years.
Juvenile or Adult?
In a growing number of cases, a juvenile may be prosecuted as an adult. A "waiver" or "transfer" to adult court means that the juvenile may be prosecutedand sentenced under the same rules that govern adult criminal trials. Transfer to adult court is governed by statute and occurs only when the juvenile stands accused of a serious felony or violent crime. A conviction in adult courtcan result in a sentence equivalent to that received by an adult. For first-degree murder, this can even mean death. Capital punishment cannot, however,be imposed on a juvenile who was less than 16 years old at the time of the offense.
When a juvenile commits a status offense, the law's response is somewhat different than its response to a criminal act. A police officer coming in contactwith a juvenile status offender may simply give the juvenile a warning, butrepeated offenses may lead to an adjudication of delinquency.
Juvenile courts also exercise authority over children who are in need of social services. This includes juveniles whose parents are unable to care for them and children who are abused or neglected. A number of low-level status offenses may cause a juvenile court to treat the juvenile as a child in need of services, and order the juvenile to live in a foster home or state reformatory.
Most juvenile courts have a building or room of their own. A juvenile court is separate from adult courtrooms and is arranged or conducted in a way that is less intimidating than the arrangements in adult courtrooms. In most states, the proceedings take place in private and the records and identities of juveniles likewise are kept private. Some states, like Wisconsin, are allowing the public increased access to juvenile records and proceedings.
Juvenile Law
The general concept of a juvenile law is widely accepted. Most persons agreethat children should not be treated the same as adults under the law. There are, however, differing opinions as to the methods and results of contemporaryjuvenile law, especially that body of law dealing with juvenile crime. In the 1960s, when juveniles gained many of the same constitutional procedural rights as adults (In re Gault [1967]), the trend in juvenile law was rehabilitation and education of juvenile transgressors. Since the late 1980s, public discussion of juvenile law has been dominated by calls for stricter controls and harsher punishments. Juveniles accused of crimes were transferred toadult court in record numbers during the 1990s. In 1995, Professor John J. Dilulio, Jr. wrote an article called "The Coming of the Super-Predators" for The Weekly Standard. Dilulio's dramatic treatise, which documented the increasing rate of violent crime and homicides by juveniles, touched a nerve around the country. The term "super-predator" quickly became a commonplace expression for describing juveniles responsible for the perceived increase in violent crime. According to James Q. Wilson, Professor of Public Policy for theUniversity of California at Los Angeles, these were juveniles who, when caught for a crime, "show us the blank, unremorseful stare of a feral, presocialbeing." U.S. Representative Bill McCollum proposed legislation in 1996 calledthe Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996. The bill, designed to automaticallyprosecute repeat violent federal offenders as adults and to increase jail time for certain crimes, was re-named after it received harsh public criticism.The Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act of 1997 was still pending in Congress at the time of this writing.
Critics of the shift toward punishment of juveniles note that the public perception of juvenile crime is skewed by political rhetoric and increased mediacoverage. Juvenile crime rates, according to many, generally remain constant,and the only shifts are in increased law enforcement, the gathering and interpretation of crime statistics, and public mood. Thomas J. Bernard, a Professor at Pennsylvania State University, argues that juvenile justice policies inthe Unites States follow a "cyclical pattern" in which a lenient period is followed by a period of harsh treatment; when stronger punishments do not decrease juvenile crime, another lenient period of reform, rehabilitation and education ensues. For some juvenile law observers, the only answer is increasededucation and rehabilitation. Charles J. Aron and Michele S.C. Hurley, two juvenile law practitioners writing for the publication Champion, submitthat "[m]any juvenile offenders live lives more problematic and horrific thanmost adults can imagine. Such backgrounds call for rehabilitation, not punishment; opportunity, not ostracism. They are, after all, children."

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