History of the Juvenile Justice System

The Juvenile Justice System is seen by many as being ineffective in treating the youth of this country, the programs are outdated and there seems to be little, if any hope that these youth will stay on the right path once released back into society. This paper will discuss the history of the Juvenile Justice System as well as how it has evolved since its inception. We will also discuss the “waiver process” that is used when transferring juveniles into the adult system, and what, if any, consequences this process may have on both the child and society.

In 1760 William Blackstone’s, Commentaries on the Laws of England was published, William Blackstone was a famous English lawyer and in his book he outlined the types of people that were incapable of committing a crime, there were two distinct groups of people, one labeled “infants” and the other “adults”. Infants were considered anyone under the age of 7, while anyone over the age of 14 was considered an adult.

The ages between the two were considered a grey area and children that had committed a crime within this age range were convicted if they appeared to know the difference between right and wrong, or showed that they understood their actions. Anyone under the age of 7 was presumed to be incapable of committing a crime because they were not of an age to understand their actions, and anyone over 14 was presumed to know the difference between right and wrong and therefore would be treated as an adult (Americanbar. org).

During the 19th Century, social reformers started to implement changes to the way juveniles in the United States were treated, they started created new facilities to house juvenile delinquents and started to focus more on rehabilitation of the youth rather than punishment. In 1825 the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency established the New York House of Refuge, and in 1855 the Chicago Reform School opened, both with the intentions of keeping juveniles separate from adult criminals and with the plan to rehabilitate and keep the youth from going further down the criminal path.

However, it wasn’t until 1899 that juveniles were awarded their own court in which to handle juvenile crimes; the first juvenile court was opened in Chicago and within 25 most states had followed suit and created their own juvenile courts (Americanbar. org). The courts worked on the doctrine of Parens Patriae, which means “Parent of the Country”, they treated each case on an individual basis, with the main goal being rehabilitation, most cases were treated as non-criminal, but courts at times did remove the youth from their homes and had them placed in reform schools as a part of that rehabilitation.

The best interest of that child was always what was most important. The goals of the Juvenile Court were described best by one of the first presiding judges of the juvenile court, Judge Julian Mack, in which he stated: The child who must be brought into court should, of course, be made to know that he is face to face with the power of the state, but he should at the same time, and more emphatically, be made to feel that he is the object of its care and solicitude. The ordinary trappings of the courtroom are out of place in such hearings.

The judge on a bench, looking down upon the boy standing at the bar, can never evoke a proper sympathetic spirit. Seated at a desk, with the child at his side, where he can on occasion put his arm around his shoulder and draw the lad to him, the judge, while losing none of his judicial dignity, will gain immensely in the effectiveness of his work (Judge Julian Mack, 1909). It was in the 1960’s that big changes were made to the Juvenile Justice System when after two separate cases involving juveniles made it to the Supreme Court, the rights of Due Process were awarded to juveniles.

After hearing the cases of Kent v. United States, 383 U. S. 541 (1966), and In re Gault, 387 U. S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court made the decision that juveniles should have the same rights of due process as awarded to adult offenders. Justice Fortas stated that “neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Bill of Rights is for adults alone” and that during delinquency hearings juvenile would be allowed certain elements of Due Process to ensure that they were treated fairly (Americanbar. org).

This decision led people to wonder if the country was staying true to the mission of the juvenile system of rehabilitation, because by allowing juveniles the right to due process we were changing juvenile proceedings into criminal proceedings and that was not the goal of the juvenile system. Juveniles are to be rehabilitated, while adults are to be punished. Another issue that is greatly debated when it comes to the juvenile system is the waiver process in which juveniles are transferred into the adult system due to the severity of their crime.

Currently 46 states give juvenile judges the ability to waive a juvenile case into the adult system, of these states the age limit for waiver is between 17 and 18, but there are a few that allow waivers for youth between 13 and 14. The age, severity of the crime and previous record are taken into account during the process of deciding whether to send a case to the adult level. However, 17 of the 46 states will allow for a waiver regardless of the type of offense (Ojjdp. gov, 1998).

Some would argue that by allowing certain youth to be transferred into the adult court, we are foregoing the original mission of the juvenile system which again is to rehabilitate and not punish, but with so many of today’s youth committing more violent crimes, it is clear that the juvenile system is not living up to its end of the “bargain”. If these youth are not being rehabilitated and are committing more serious crimes, such as rape and murder, should they not be treated as adults and be punished for their actions?

All of these new implementations to the juvenile system are leaving people wondering whether the two systems should even continue to be separate or if they should be combined into one justice system. While there are many believing that the juvenile system is outdated and ineffective, there are just as many that believe the system can be fixed. True, some of the programs that are available in the juvenile system are outdated, but rather than do away with the system that does have a positive effect on some of these young offenders, we need simply to address the problems within the programs.

Closing the doors on a system designed for and geared towards rehabilitating our youth is not the right answer, and while the waiver into the adult system may seem as if we have given upon trying to rehabilitate, it is actually a step forward because now we can focus on rehabilitating those youth that do want to start over and become someone, as opposed to spending our time trying to get someone to change that doesn’t want to do it.

There is a saying that you can’t help those that don’t want to help themselves, and that is never truer than when you set out to help a juvenile get back on the right path and he/she defies your help and continues to go down that path and then skips ahead to a worse path.

The system needs to stay and each case needs to be looked at on an individual basis, those that can benefit from Parens Patriae should be given that opportunity, while those that are consistently doing things that will land them in an adult situation, should be treated under the rights of due process, even if that means waiving them into the adult system. By doing what we need to as a society to keep the streets safe from rapist, killers, and “gangsters”, we are in a way continuing to do what we set out to do…rehabilitate, sadly, sometimes rehabilitation means living with the consequences of your actions.