Criminal behavior in children

The philosophy underpinning the creation of Houses of Refuge in the 1820’s was based on the idea that the malaise of juvenile delinquency could somehow be eliminated with the proper rearing of children through education and the example of positive role models in the lives of these children, as opposed to having them learn proper conduct and behavior in adult prisons.

Thus, many of these Houses of Refuge were established throughout the United States as it was hoped that funneling juvenile delinquents to these private institutions would prove an adequate solution to the problem. With the establishment of juvenile justice courts in the late 19th century, it became clear that the actions of these Houses of Refuge were not enough to stem the problem of criminal behavior in children.

Under the parens patriae principle and doctrine, the State began to see itself more as a father figure which had to supplant the moral guidance and direction provided by a father to a growing child and not as an administrator of justice toward the restitution of wrongs. As opposed to the earlier system where private individuals were taking the lead in providing the children with proper instruction and direction, this time it was the State taking the initiative and through the juvenile justice system, setting the ways and means toward what it deemed as proper rehabilitation.

However, the absence of institutional safeguards afforded to adult prosecutions were absent in juvenile prosecutions which led to some degree of institutional failure which critics eagerly pounced upon. A widespread dissatisfaction toward the juvenile justice system, together with greater focus on the shortcomings of the system, which in turn was made more acute because of the rather secretive nature of the juvenile justice system, caused society to rethink its position on juvenile offenders.

The sensational approach employed by media outlets toward the reportage of crimes involving juvenile delinquents, coupled with a sharp rise in juvenile criminal activity caused a return to a more punitive and retribution-based approach to juvenile delinquency. Before long, the shift to mini-trials for juvenile offenders created a perception that juvenile offenders were merely adult criminals in the bodies of children and had to be treated no differently.

By the 1990’s, most states had adopted adult trial provisions for certain classes of juvenile offenses and just less than half of all states have laws increasing the victim’s role in juvenile courts. The civil libertarian movement of the 1960s also had an effect on the juvenile justice system. Many argued for a move away from the institutionalized approach to juvenile delinquency that had juvenile justice institutions run little better than prisons for young children.

Also, there was increasing clamor to extend the protections under the Bill of Rights, especially the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, freedom from self-incrimination, and the right to trial by jury. Before long, courts began to take notice that jjuvenile offenders were, to use a phrase, getting the short end of the stick. In the words of Justice Fortas in Kent v. United States, children received “the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.

” Justice Fortas continued this line of thinking in In re Gault (1967), where Gerald Francis Gault, a fifteen year old had been sentenced to placement in a State Industrial School in Arizona until he reached the age of 21 for making prank phone calls to a neighbor while in detention. Justice Fortas ruled that Due Process and Equal Protection clause considerations, as well as other Bill of Rights guarantees must be extended to those accused in juvenile courts.

This ruling opened the floodgates for class-action lawsuits attacking the conditions and policies found in juvenile institutions at the time, holding them to be cruel and unusual punishment for the juvenile offenders. To go with this negative image of juvenile institutions, activists began to campaign for a more grassroots-oriented and integrated rehabilitation program. In response, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that still governs juvenile justice today.