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Juvenile Law


Before the nineteenth century, children were generally considered to be young adults, and they were expected to behave accordingly. Children over the age of seven years who were accused of crimes were prosecuted in adult court. If convicted they could be confined in an adult prison. By the nineteenth century, most states had created separate work farms and reform schools for convicted children, but some states still sent children to adult prisons. Juveniles were not always rehabilitated in prison. After interacting with adult criminals, they often emerged from prison with increased criminal knowledge and an increased resolve to commit crimes.

In the late nineteenth century, progressive social discourse caused a shift in the general

Trying Juveniles as Adults

In 1899 the U.S. made legal history when the world's first juvenile court opened in Chicago. The court was founded on two basic principles. First, juveniles lacked the maturity to take responsibility for their actions the way adults could. Second, because their character was not yet fully developed, they could be rehabilitated more successfully than adult criminals. More than a century later, these principles remain the benchmarks of juvenile justice in the United States.

In recent years, however, a growing number of juvenile criminals are being tried as adults—much the way they might have been before the advent of juvenile courts. In part this stems from public outrage against children who, in increasing numbers, are committing violent crimes. Interestingly, the overall rate of juvenile crime has been decreasing since 1995. When people see gruesome images on television, such as the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, or the Springfield, Oregon, rampage of 15-year-old Kip Kinkel (who shot both his parents and two classmates), their impression is that juvenile crime is out of control.

Since the early 1990s many states have adopted a "get tough" approach to juvenile justice as a response to the increasingly violent crimes committed by children. As of 2003 many states had adopted legislation that permits more children to be tried as adults. All states have a provision allowing prosecutors to try juveniles as young as 14 as adults under certain circumstances. In some states, such as Indiana, South Dakota, and Vermont, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults.

An example of a "get tough" law is Michigan's Juvenile Waiver Law of 1997. This measure lowered the age that juveniles can automatically be tried as adults. In adopting this law, the state has taken away some of the judge's discretion in deciding whether a minor should be tried as a child or as an adult. Factors such as criminal history, psychiatric evaluation, and the nature of the offender's actions carry less weight when the judge is forced to enter an automatic adult plea.

Another example is California's Proposition 21, which was passed in 2000. This law permits prosecutors to send many juveniles accused of felonies directly to adult court. In effect, the prosecutors are the ones who decide whether a minor should be tried and sentenced within the adult system; this takes away the judge's discretion. Proposition 21 also prohibits the use of what was known as "informal probation" in felonies. This type of PROBATION was offered to first-time juvenile offenders who admitted their guilt and attempted to make restitution. Finally, the proposition requires known gang members to register with police agencies and increases the penalties for crimes such as VANDALISM.

The U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT shows that prosecutors are actively putting these new tougher laws to use against juvenile offenders. A Justice Department study released in 2000 states that violent juvenile offenders are more likely to serve out their sentences in an adult prison than they would have been in 1985. With two million adults currently incarcerated in prison, the number of juveniles in adult facilities is a minuscule percentage; 7,400 juvenile offenders were serving time in an adult facility as of 1997, according to the Justice Department. That number, however, is more than double the number of juveniles in adult prisons in 1985.

The question of whether trying juveniles as adults is effective has generated considerable interest. Some studies have suggested that instead of solving a problem, trying juveniles in adult settings may be making things worse. Juveniles who serve time with adults have a higher RECIDIVISM rate than those who serve with other juveniles. Moreover, juvenile recidivists from adult facilities were more likely to commit more violent crimes than their counterparts in juvenile centers. Groups such as HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH have complained that prison conditions for juveniles in adult prisons are poor and that juveniles in adult facilities are more likely to be assaulted or abused by other prisoners.

Putting aside the debate over whether minors belong in adult prisons, there is no question that the practice had gained support and was in the early 2000s accepted by people who might have balked 20 years earlier. Whether the new "get tough" policy so many states embrace would work remained to be seen, but it was certainly expected to stay.


Anderson, David C. 1998. "When Should Kids Go to Jail?" The American Prospect (May-June).

Juszkiewics, Jolanta, and Marc Schindler. 2001. "Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?" Corrections Today 63 (February).


Courts; Penitentiary.

attitude toward children. Social, psychological, and behavioral experts proposed a new understanding of children based on their youth. The progressive theory declared that children should be considered innocent and vulnerable and as lacking the mental state required for them to be held responsible for a criminal offense because they have not acquired the wisdom that comes with age. It followed that juveniles should not be punished for their criminal behavior. Instead, they should be reformed, rehabilitated, and educated.

Juvenile crime was an important element, but not the driving force, behind the creation of the juvenile courts. Juvenile crime rates were quite low in the nineteenth century. Progressives claimed that the biggest problems facing children were neglect and poverty. The industrial revolution caused an increase in the number of urban poor. As poverty increased, so did the incidence of child ABANDONMENT, neglect, and abuse. This situation led to a political push for states to protect those who were in distress.

The perception of the government as a surrogate parent, known as PARENS PATRIAE, also led to the formulation of status offenses. These offenses derived from the idea that the government should help shape the habits and morals of juveniles. Status offenses reflected the notion that state control of juveniles should not be limited to enforcement of the criminal laws. Instead, the state would have additional authority to prohibit a wide variety of acts that were considered precursors to criminal behavior.

The progressive theory won widespread support, and legislatures set to the task of conforming the legal system to the new understanding of children. The Illinois legislature was the first to create a separate court for children. The Juvenile Court Act of 1899 (1899 Ill. Laws 131, 131-37) created the first juvenile court and established a judicial framework that would serve as a model for other states.

The Illinois act raised the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years. This action meant that no person under the age of 16 could be prosecuted in adult court for a crime. Children accused of a crime would instead be brought to juvenile court.

The Illinois act gave the juvenile court additional authority to control the fate of a variety of troubled youths. These young people included:

any child who for any reason is destitute or homeless or abandoned; or dependent on the public for support; or has not proper parental 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.

The Illinois act also created a new system for the disposition of juveniles. The act specified that all children found to be within the jurisdiction of the court should be given a level of care and discipline similar to "that which should be given by its parents" (§ 3 [1899 Ill. Laws 131, 132]). In all cases the court would attempt to place the child with a foster family or a court-approved family responsible for the custody of the child. If foster placement was not accomplished, the child would be placed in a reform school, where he or she would work and study. Juveniles found to be within the jurisdiction of the court remained under the court's control until the age of 21.

The terminology created for juvenile court was based on the terminology used in civil rather than criminal court. This language helped establish a nonthreatening environment. Juveniles were not charged by an indictment, as they would have been charged in adult court; rather, they were brought before the juvenile court by way of a petition. Juveniles were not arraigned by the court at their first appearance; instead, they were held to appear for an intake hearing. The process was not called a trial but an adjudication or a hearing. A juvenile found by the court to have committed a crime was not found guilty but was adjudged delinquent. Finally, instead of fashioning a sentence proportionate to the offense, the juvenile court disposed of the case by focusing on the best interests of the child. This terminology was used in every case, whether the petition concerned a juvenile charged with a crime or a juvenile in need of services or protection.

The Illinois act spawned similar acts in other states, and soon the progressive theory was put into practice across the United States. Juveniles were rehabilitated instead of punished; placed under the control of a juvenile court for a wide range of circumstances, some beyond their own control; and diverted from adult courts and prisons into an informal, relaxed system.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La FolletteJuvenile Law - History, Trying Juveniles As Adults, Modern Juvenile Law, Should The Juvenile Justice System Be Abolished?