Juvenile justice Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

System of laws, courts, and institutions created for children who commit illegal acts.

As early as the Middle Ages, the English legal system recognized that children who commit crimes should be treated differently than adults.Family and children The U.S. legal system also recognized this and adopted the common law rule that children under the age of seven could not be criminally prosecuted and that those between seven and fourteen were presumed unfit to be prosecuted. Children fourteen and older were treated as adults.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scholars and policymakers came to the conclusion that a special, separate justice system should be created for young people, including delinquents and neglected and abused children. The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899; within a few years, nearly every jurisdiction in the United States had followed suit.

Constitutional Protections

The juvenile courts were intended to be operated under the doctrine of parens patriae, which meant that their foremost consideration was to be the best interests of the children. Juvenile court judges were to give careful, individualized consideration to the needs of each child and were to recommend dispositions that would best meet those needs. In the case of delinquents, the main goal was rehabilitation. To accomplish these goals, juvenile court judges were given a great deal of discretion in their decision making, and the process was purposely kept free of many of the legal formalities of the adult criminal justice system, such as the participation of lawyers and juries.

By the 1960’s although commentators continued to applaud the objectives of the juvenile justice system, many criticized its actual performance. It was argued that the broad discretion afforded judges, combined with the minimal legal protections in place and the general overcrowding of the system, led to frequent abuses and injustices. The Supreme Court first responded to these criticisms in Kent v. United States[case]Kent v. United States[Kent v. United States] (1966), in which the Court hinted that youths involved in the juvenile justice system might be entitled to at least some constitutional protections.

The protections that were foreshadowed in Kent were fulfilled by the Court a year later in In re Gault[case]Gault, In re[Gault, In re] (1967). The fifteen-year-old defendant was accused of making a lewd phone call. After juvenile court hearings in which he was not represented by an attorney, was denied the right to confront his accuser, and was not allowed to appeal, he was committed to a juvenile facility until his twenty-first birthday. The Court, ruling that “the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court,” overturned his disposition.

In Gault, the Court held that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that juvenile courts use certain procedural safeguards to ensure that juveniles are treated fairly and without bias. Juveniles have the right to be notified of charges far enough in advance of a hearing and in sufficient detail to prepare a defense. They also have the right to be represented by an attorney and, if the family is unable to afford an attorney, to have one appointed. In addition, juveniles have the right to confront witnesses against them and to refuse to incriminate themselves. Finally, they have the right to appeal the juvenile court’s decision to a higher court. The Court believed that these rights would protect youths while still enabling the juvenile courts to achieve their goals.

Additional Rights

A question left open by the Gault decision was whether juveniles were entitled to other due process protections as well. This question was answered, in part, in In re Winship[case]Winship, In re[Winship, In re] (1970), in which the Court held that due process demands that allegations in juvenile court be proved to the same standard beyond a reasonable doubt as those in adult court. Although some commentators applauded this decision as necessary to protect innocent youths, others objected that to provide juveniles with the same rights as adults would prevent the juvenile justice system from achieving its goal of protecting children’s best interests.

The Court may have been responding to those criticisms a year later when it held in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania[case]McKeiver v. Pennsylvania[MacKeiver v. Pennsylvania] (1971) that those accused in juvenile courts are not entitled to a jury trial. In this case, the Court once again expressed a deep disappointment in the failures of the juvenile justice system. However, it believed that to require a jury would not remedy these failures and would effectively erase the differences between the juvenile and adult systems, turning the juvenile system into a full adversary process. The Court was not yet willing to give up on the promise of the juvenile justice system.

After Gault and the subsequent decisions, the juvenile justice system has evolved to resemble the criminal system in some, but not all, aspects. For example, the Court held that the Fifth Amendment’s double jeopardy clause applies to juvenile proceedings and that juveniles are entitled to essentially the same Miranda rights as adults (but no greater). Juveniles, like adults awaiting trial, may be detained before their delinquency hearings to prevent them from committing additional crimes. On the other hand, the Court has also held in a series of cases that children, at least while they are in school, have more limited First and Fourth Amendment rights than do adults.

By the end of the twentieth century, when the juvenile justice system reached its hundredth anniversary, many policymakers as well as members of the general public echoed the Court’s frustration with the juvenile justice system. Many states enacted laws increasing the number of crimes for which juveniles may be tried as adults and lowering the minimum ages for adult court jurisdiction. As a result, most serious offenders were no longer treated by the juvenile justice system.

Further Reading
  • Del Carmen, Rolando V., Mary Parker, and Frances P. Reddington. Briefs of Leading Cases in Juvenile Justice. Cincinnati: Anderson, 1998.
  • Krisberg, Barry, and James F. Austin. Reinventing Juvenile Justice. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publishing, 1993.
  • Rubin, H. Ted. Juvenile Justice: Policy, Practice, and Law. 2d ed. New York: Random House, 1985.

Constitutional law

Due process, procedural

Gault, In re

McKeiver v. Pennsylvania

Categories: History Content