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
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.
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