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Juvenile Courts

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 decades of the nineteenth century. Opinions about children changed. Childhood became an important transition between infancy and adulthood. Social activists fought for the protection of children. While some worked to remove children from the drudgery of day-long labor, others saw children victimized by a judicial system 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 Delinquency advocated the separation of adult and juvenile criminals. The Society for the Reformation 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 directors and 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 with abuse, 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesJuvenile Courts - A System In Place For Children, Types Of Cases Handled In Juvenile Court, Development Of Juvenile Courts