8 minute read

Police: Handling of Juveniles

Historical Overview And Organizational Structure

The focus and purpose of "juvenile justice" has undergone considerable change in the past century. Juvenile justice systems were originally formed to protect youth from the adult systems of justice and to allow discretion in decisionmaking involving youth so that juvenile justice actors could make decisions that were in the best interest of the child. The ideals behind the formation of the juvenile court, for example, revolved around rehabilitation and helping juveniles who might have problematic home lives or who were psychologically immature or troubled (Scott and Grisso). Troubled and delinquent youth were not thought to be fully capable of guilty intentions, rather they were thought to be in need of help and guidance. However, the idea that juveniles should be handled with "kid gloves" and that they should be protected from the adult system of justice has changed—particularly since the mid-1970s. These changes have not, however, had many direct implications for police handling of juveniles; they more often have altered the context of the juvenile courts.

Remarkably, the police role in juvenile justice has remained much the same. One of the central reasons for this has to do with the occupation of policing. Police officers work alone, without direct supervision, and they bear the burden of much discretion. It is difficult to know what officers do during their shifts and many of their contacts with youth (and adults) go without documentation in official records. When the creation of juvenile justice systems occurred (and this happened sporadically throughout the states), police handling of juveniles was not of much concern.

Prior to the early twentieth century, police had the authority to arrest juveniles (possibly more authority than with adults because juveniles had no procedural protections) but juveniles were usually dealt with informally. That is to say, police officers would warn kids, bring them home to their parents or guardians, or maybe relinquish them to a community agency (i.e., a local church or school) (Bartollas and Miller). It is important to put this within the context of policing during this period. Policing in America prior to the 1920s and 1930s was very political. Patrol officers campaigned for local politicians and as a reward were allowed to keep their jobs or to begin a job as a patrol officer. Patrol officers were politically recruited from the neighborhoods in which they lived, and as a result they knew many of the juveniles living in their assigned areas. Kelling notes that many cases of youth crime and disorder were settled with the end of a nightstick. The youths' families and their political connections would more than likely influence the outcome of a police-juvenile interaction. These police practices with juveniles (and adults) came under scrutiny during the Progressive era, which marked a period of professionalization for police.

The professionalization movement in policing occurred in response to a movement to establish professional standards in policing and it occurred as the result of increased technology in America (see Walker, 1992). The professionalization movement sought, among other things, to eliminate political control of the police, raise personnel standards, appoint qualified chiefs to lead police departments, refocus the police toward fighting crime, and create specialized units to handle special problems. When policing underwent this reform in the early twentieth century, some of the changes were targeted at policing juveniles. Police departments began acknowledging the problem of juvenile crime and began to address this issue as part of an overall policing strategy (Miller). Moreover, reforms targeted at policing juveniles called on police to prevent juvenile delinquency—rather than merely attempting to make arrests. Police attention to juvenile crime before the mid-twentieth century was focused on crime prevention rather than on apprehension, deterrence, and punishment.

With this new attention to juvenile crime came the hiring of female officers. Female police officers were introduced to the policing occupation during the early twentieth century and they were initially hired to work with juvenile delinquents and runaways. They were labeled juvenile "specialists" because it was thought that women had a "special capacity for child care" and that handling juveniles was in fact women's work (see Walker, 1977, pp. 84–85).

During the early 1900s larger police agencies began instituting some organizational structure to handle juveniles. In the 1920s August Vollmer, the father of police professionalism, who was at the time chief of police in Berkley, California, formed one of the first juvenile bureaus (Walker; Bartollas and Miller). Vollmer advocated for increased training and specialized training for juvenile officers. He wanted juvenile officers to be educated on the causes of juvenile delinquency and to develop programs that would help keep juveniles out of trouble. Specialized juvenile units and bureaus would be found in most metropolitan agencies by the mid 1900s, their primary focus on crime prevention. Police agencies that did not have the manpower (or need) for an entire juvenile unit or bureau would often have at least one "juvenile specialist" who focused his or her efforts on keeping kids out of trouble and preventing juvenile crime. The establishment of these organized juvenile units and bureaus spawned the development of police athletic leagues and youth diversion programs—some of which still exist today. Police athletic leagues were created to help foster a relationship between police and kids. Diversion programs divert youth from the criminal justice system by using counseling and other tactics to teach kids about accountability and the consequences of delinquency. In the 1960s these were formal programs designed to avoid labeling youth as criminals and to lighten the load of the criminal justice system.

Today most police agencies have juvenile units or juvenile specialists, but the focus of the juvenile officer in metropolitan agencies has evolved over time. Juvenile specialists now operate as detectives, and are called juvenile unit detectives, juvenile specialists, and so on. They are embraced as an essential part of police departments and are no longer viewed as the add-on that they once were. Juvenile officers spend much of their day doing investigative work, following up on juvenile crimes and on juvenile victimization. This is not to say that juvenile officers never spend time involved in crime prevention, that crime prevention can no longer be their sole focus. In terms of prevention, juvenile officers still spend some time forming police athletic leagues and youth diversion programs that began in the middle of the twentieth century. It is also common for juvenile detectives to make appearances at elementary, middle, and high schools to deter juvenile crime and to speak out against drug use and gang formation. In fact, many metropolitan departments train one or more officers to work directly with schoolchildren of all ages, educating students on the consequences of delinquency and drug use. One particular prevention program, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), became very popular nationwide during the 1990s.

During the 1990s many police departments hired officers to work specifically on the DARE project. DARE, which was developed in the Los Angeles, California, police department as a drug prevention program for school children, uses uniformed patrol officers to educate school children on the dangers of drug use. DARE officers often had offices within public schools, where kids could easily access information or ask questions. Early evaluations suggested that DARE worked and as a result many departments in the 1990s assigned uniformed officers to the DARE project. Unfortunately, extended evaluations of this program now suggests that the long-term effects of project DARE are not as beneficial as once thought; in fact they may be nonexistent (see, for example, Rosenbaum et al.; Rosenbaum and Hanson). For this reason, many departments are phasing out DARE as a preventive measure or are at least restructuring the program. The role of the juvenile officer or detective continues to evolve, and with time involvement in investigation has taken precedence over prevention, although this may change with new reforms in policing. Under the umbrella of community and problem-oriented policing, police departments nationwide are beginning to form partnerships with communities so that they can be more efficient at preventing crime. This new approach to policing will surely influence how police address issues of juvenile crime. In 1998 and 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded millions of dollars in School-Based Partnership grants, which funded partnerships between the police, schoolchildren, and the community. The goal of these partnerships was to target specific problems of school crime and violence and to develop a link between kids and cops. Evaluations of these projects are ongoing.

Is juvenile crime on the rise? There has been an increased concern about the incidence and seriousness of juvenile offending over the past few decades. Local and national media regularly alert American families to instances of juvenile crime. This growing awareness and concern has prompted renewed attention to the juvenile justice system, with particular concern over how juveniles are processed in to and out of the system. Whether or not this growing concern is warranted is debatable. While policy makers and public opinion call for "get tough" approaches with juveniles, some argue that there are no justifications for such an approach (see Bernard, for an example). In 1996, juvenile arrests accounted for almost 20 percent of the arrests tabulated for the F.B.I.'s Uniform Crime Reports. The number of juvenile arrests in 1996 represented a 35 percent increase over the preceding ten years, while arrests overall during that period increased only 13 percent. Further, the number of juvenile arrests for violent personal offenses represented a 60 percent increase (see Worden and Myers). Statistics of this kind along with well-publicized incidents of youth violence over the past decade have prompted policy makers to call for measures that would make the juvenile justice system more punitive. Bernard argues that the statistics do not justify such an approach. A deeper analysis reveals that the number of juvenile arrests (with the exception of homicide arrests) has basically paralleled the rise and fall in the number of juveniles of crime-prone age (p. 342). In fact, juvenile crime has been on a decline, down by one-third since 1975 (Bernard). One might logically infer or hypothesize that the increase in the number of police arrests of juveniles could reflect police adoption of the "get tough" movement.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolice: Handling of Juveniles - Historical Overview And Organizational Structure, Legal Rights Of Juveniles, Police-juvenile Interactions, Police Handling Of Juveniles: Outcomes