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Juvenile Law and Justice

Juvenile Courts, The "system", Juvenile Or Adult?, Juvenile Law, 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 state according 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 of children over which juvenile courts have jurisdiction: children accused of committing a crime; children who are in need of protection from the state; and children 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, possession of pornography, and flight from home.

Before the creation of juvenile law in the late nineteenth century, children in the United States generally were treated under the law as adults. For criminal behavior, only children under the age of seven were immune from criminal prosecution. 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 the issue.

In the late nineteenth century, large cities were fast becoming repositories for the country's underclass as massive industrialization forced growing numbers into poverty. Progressive legislators, concerned about the swelling ranks of poor, unsupervised children in urban areas, argued that children were different from adults and proposed that they should be treated differently under the law. Along with mandatory school attendance, the Progressives proposed a new 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 to poor and unsupervised children.

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