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.
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.
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
The protections that were foreshadowed in Kent were fulfilled by the Court a year later in In re Gault
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.
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
The Court may have been responding to those criticisms a year later when it held in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania
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.
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.
Due process, procedural
Gault, In re
McKeiver v. Pennsylvania