As therapeutic legal institution, the juvenile court balances rehabilitation and justice for America’s youth who are at risk for harm or have violated the law. The juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago with the goal of rehabilitating wayward youth. Although the methods of rehabilitation, or treatment, have changed over time, it is a goal that remains central to the function and legitimacy of the juvenile court.
2. In re Gault
As therapeutic legal institution, the juvenile court balances rehabilitation and justice for America’s youth who are at risk for harm or have violated the law. The juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago with the goal of rehabilitating wayward youth. Although the methods of rehabilitation, or treatment, have changed over time, it is a goal that remains central to the function and legitimacy of the juvenile court. Treatment encompasses many different means of attending to the needs of delinquent or neglected youth: psychological supervision, medical services, behavioral management, educational needs, and restitution to victims or the community. Despite treatment being the fundamental goal, juvenile courts recently have become more criminalized because of concerns about fairness; that is, they are more like adult criminal courts. Examples of criminalization include an increased use of determinate outcomes and more adversarial proceedings.
The juvenile court is an important component of the American criminal justice system because it adjudicates wrongdoing by juveniles and attempts to prevent future crimes by addressing the root causes of problem youthful behavior. When parents fail to informally control their children and prevent wrongful behavior, society has an obligation to punish and correct delinquent youth. However, authorities must intervene in a way that acknowledges the limited rationality of immature minds. Juvenile court practitioners assume they can rehabilitate wayward youth through treatment. Consequently, the juvenile court prevents crimes by treating the root causes in individual juveniles’ lives— drug or alcohol dependence, criminal associations, poor parenting, and so on. Because young minds are impressionable, court caseworkers want to intervene early in a child’s life to alter bad behavior and poor decision making. From its inception, the juvenile court has applied the best scientific methods from medicine, psychology, criminology, sociology, and social work to change antisocial behavior. Critics of the juvenile courts have noted a tendency toward punishment over treatment; thus, juveniles have due process rights in court procedures to ensure fair hearings.
Because of the juvenile court’s rehabilitative orientation and legal authority, it has developed terminology that is analogous to criminal justice terms yet is slightly different. Some of the more common terms are defined here. When a juvenile commits a felony crime, it is called delinquency, meaning that a juvenile is delinquent in his or her obligation to society. Delinquency includes personal and property crimes, such as robbery and burglary. Behaviors that are prohibited only for youth are called status offenses (the age cutoff between youth and adulthood varies by state). Status offenses include truancy, drinking alcohol, breaking curfew, and incorrigibility (i.e., being uncontrollable). Cases in which juveniles need intervention because they are not being cared for by parents or guardians are called abuse (if done so maliciously) or neglect (if done so unintentionally). Although juvenile courts handle all kinds or family- and youth-related matters, such as adoption and guardianship, this research paper focuses on delinquency matters.
To emphasize the treatment goal, juvenile courts avoid the stigmatizing language used in the adult criminal courts. For instance, a juvenile is referred to the court rather than arrested. A formal written complaint against a juvenile is called a petition rather than a charge. The trial is called an adjudication, and the sentence is called a disposition. Finally, to be held in custody until the adjudication hearing is called detention.
Juvenile court professionals have designations similar to those of their counterparts in adult courts, but their roles differ slightly. A juvenile court judge is a magistrate who is responsible for adjudicating delinquency, status offenses, and abuse and neglect cases and other legal family matters. In most jurisdictions the judge also runs the juvenile court office, hiring personnel, setting office policies, and planning the budget. A chief juvenile office manager oversees daily functions, but the judge holds the ultimate authority over operations. This particular role for the judge differs from the adult system. If a felony court judge had the same responsibilities in the adult system, that judge would oversee probation and parole as well as sit on the bench. In urban courts with large dockets, several officers, known as magistrates, referees, or masters, may adjudicate cases. A chief judge authorizes these officers to adjudicate cases. Juvenile court cases can involve attorneys acting as prosecutor and defense counsel. Most juvenile courts retain an attorney who acts as a prosecutor, employed by either the juvenile court or the county district attorney’s office. In urban courts a prosecutor may sit in on all felony delinquency cases; in rural courts the prosecutor may only appear in only a few contested cases. The job of the juvenile court prosecutor is to plead the state’s case against the juvenile; however, unlike in the adult criminal courts, the juvenile court prosecutor consults with the probation officers with regard to an outcome that is in the best interests of the juvenile (i.e., involves some kind of treatment plan). More recently, many prosecutors also invoke public safety as a concern in the state’s case to justify secure confinement or waiver.
Although they do not routinely appear in juvenile court cases, defense counsel can be either a court-appointed public defender or a privately hired attorney. Most defense attorneys, however, do not specialize in juvenile court law. Even though criminal court judges appoint public defenders only to represent indigent adults, most juvenile court judges appoint a public defender if requested regardless of a family’s means. In abuse and neglect cases, however, private attorneys, known as guardians ad litem, are routinely appointed by the judge to serve as legal guardians for the youth.
Juvenile court probation officers are central to realizing the juvenile court’s treatment goal. Probation officers handle cases from the initial intake stage to postadjudication probation. In many rural jurisdictions the same person performs all these tasks. Much of what probation officers do is to gather information about the juvenile and the offense. For instance, probation officers write up predisposition investigation reports for the judge to consult once the juvenile has been found delinquent. These reports make treatment recommendations that the judges use to determine disposition outcome. Thus, the juvenile officer must generate an individualized treatment plan that addresses the unique needs of the juvenile. In some jurisdictions, especially when the case is uncontested, the probation officer may present the state’s case before the judge. Thus, the probation officer has much discretion and a wide range of responsibilities in the juvenile justice system.
Before discussing the juvenile court process, a brief history of the foundation of the juvenile court and attempts at reform will help highlight why these courts operate differently from the adult criminal justice system. Then a brief overview of the juvenile court process is discussed, along with current problems facing the institution today. Finally, the future direction of the juvenile court is discussed.