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Juvenile Justice: History and Philosophy

The Origins Of The Juvenile Court

Prior to the creation of juvenile courts, the common law's infancy defense provided the only special protections for young offenders charged with crimes. The common law conclusively presumed that children younger than seven years of age lacked criminal capacity, while those fourteen years of age and older possessed full criminal responsibility. Between the ages of seven and fourteen years, the law rebuttably presumed that offenders lacked criminal capacity. If found criminally responsible, however, states executed youths as young as twelve years of age. Historically, when the criminal justice system confronted a child offender, it faced the stark alternatives of criminal conviction and punishment as an adult, or acquittal or dismissal. Jury or judicial nullification to avoid excessive punishment excluded many youths from any controls, particularly those charged with minor offenses.

To avoid these unpalatable alternatives, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the first age-segregated institutions—the House of Refuge—appeared in cities on the East Coast, and by mid-century, reformatories and youth institutions spread to the rural and Midwestern regions of the country. By the end of the century, the juvenile court appeared in Cook County (Chicago), spread to other major urban centers, and completed the process of separating the systems of social control of youths from adults.

Many legal features incorporated into the juvenile court first appeared in the laws creating the houses of refuge. Refuge legislation embodied three legal innovations: a formal agebased distinction between juvenile and adult offenders and their institutional separation; the use of indeterminate commitments; and a broadened legal authority, parens patriae, that encompassed both criminal offenders and neglected and incorrigible children. The legal doctrine of parens patriae—the right and responsibility of the state to substitute its own control over children for that of the natural parents when the latter appeared unable or unwilling to meet their responsibilities or when the child posed a problem for the community—originated in the English chancery courts to protect the crown's interests in feudal succession and established royal authority to administer the estates of orphaned minors with property. In 1838 parens patriae entered American juvenile jurisprudence to justify the commitment of a child to a house of refuge. In Ex parte Crouse, 4 Whart. 9 (Pa. 1838), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected legal challenges to the peremptory incarceration of troublesome youths, noting that "The object of the charity is reformation . . . To this end, may not the natural parents, when unequal to the task of education, or unworthy of it be superseded by the parens patriae, or common guardian of the community? It is to be remembered that the public has a paramount interest in the virtue and knowledge of its members, and that, of strict right, the business of education belongs to it . . . . The infant has been snatched from a course which must have ended in confirmed depravity; and not only is the restraint of her person lawful, but it would be an act of extreme cruelty to release her from it" (4 Whart. at 11 (Pa. 1838)).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawJuvenile Justice: History and Philosophy - The Origins Of The Juvenile Court, The Progressive Juvenile Court, The Constitutional Domestication Of The Juvenile Court