Juvenile Justice

III. The Juvenile Court

The beginnings of the juvenile justice system are pegged to the establishment of the juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. The legislation that established the Illinois juvenile court reflected the general belief in the ability to alter youthful behavior. First, the court was to operate in a highly informal manner, without any of the trappings of the adult court. Lawyers and other adversarial features of the adult system (such as rules of evidence and testimony under oath) were discouraged. The judge was to take a paternal stance toward the juvenile and provide whatever help and assistance was needed. The emphasis was on assisting the youth rather than on punishing an offense. Second, all juveniles under the age of 16, regardless of whether they had committed an offense or not, could be handled by the new court. The court could intervene in any situation where a youth was in need of help. In practical terms, this allowed intervention into the lives of the poor and immigrants, whose child-raising practices did not conform to the ideas of the court. Third, the new court relied extensively on the use of probation for both administrative functions and supervising adjudicated youths.

The reforms that led to the establishment of juvenile courts also had other influences. One impact was a gradual widening of the juvenile court’s mandate to include intervention for criminal activity, dependency, and neglect, as well as status offenses such as curfew violation and incorrigibility. A second area of change involved the development of new institutions for handling youths who needed to be removed from their families. These institutions closely followed the family/cottage model used throughout the late 1800s, with the greatest distinction being administration by the juvenile court. Third, the court relied on full-time, paid probation officers. A final major movement was the institution of court-affiliated guidance clinics. These clinics relied on the emerging psychological and sociological explanations for behavior. Central to these explanations was the need for the expert examination of each juvenile in order to identify the unique factors contributing to the individual’s behavior.

IV. The Legal Philosophy of the New System

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the growth of juvenile justice entailed debate over the philosophy of the court and the question of a juvenile’s constitutional rights. Critics of the court and earlier interventions often claimed that the state was subjecting juveniles to intervention without regard to their rights and those of the family. In many instances, the state was forcibly removing a youth from his or her parents’ custody. These new interventions were viewed as an abrogation of the family’s position in society. However, the problems of constitutional rights and the new juvenile justice system were deemed inconsequential compared to the possible benefits that could accrue from intervention. Indeed, the state relied on the doctrine of parens patriae, or the state as parent, for justification of its position.

The case Ex parte Crouse (1838) stated that the Bill of Rights did not apply to youths and argued that the public’s interest in the education of its members gave it the right to intervene despite the wishes of the parents. In essence, the state could intervene, regardless of the reason, if it found that the child was in need of help or assistance that the parents and family could not or would not provide. This belief in the court’s right to intervene at any time, providing the goal was to help the youth, remained largely unchallenged until the late 1960s.

Challenges to the parens patriae doctrine through a growing number of court cases in the late 1960s and early 1970s were signals of major changes in society’s approach to both juvenile misbehavior and adult criminality. Cases including In re Gault (1967), In re Winship (1970), Kent v. United States (1966), and McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971) challenged the good intentions of the juvenile court and introduced the need for providing some constitutional due process protections to youths. In addition, the strong reliance on and belief in rehabilitation and treatment that dominated throughout the 20th century were joined by retribution, just deserts, and deterrence in the juvenile justice system.

Despite these changes, parens patriae remains the key philosophy underlying juvenile courts in the United States. This is illustrated in an inspection of the “purpose clauses” for juvenile courts found in state statutes. There are five general categories of juvenile court purpose clauses—Balanced and Restorative Justice clauses; Standard Juvenile Court Act clauses; Legislative Guide clauses; Punishment, Deterrence, Accountability, and Public Safety clauses; and Traditional ChildWelfare clauses (Griffin, Szymanski, & King, 2006). In only 1 of the 5 categories (Punishment, Deterrence) is parens patriae largely excluded and the emphasis shifted to an adult court/criminal law orientation for the juvenile court. The other four categories maintain parens patriae as at least a key component (if not directly named) in addressing problem youths.

The shift in juvenile justice to a more adversarial, due process model elicits a wide range of problems and issues within the system. Among these is the introduction of attorneys (on both the prosecutorial and defense sides), the transfer or waiver of youths to adult court processing, divesting the court of jurisdiction over status offenders, and various transformations in the juvenile court itself.

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