Prior to the turn of the 20th century, children were treated as adults by the court system. This was because there were no specialized courts for dealing with children. Even as early as the beginning of the 19th century, there was a growing concern about the welfare of children-especially those deemed to be delinquent. Society’s response to this growing problem of neglected children was to create houses of refuge. These houses were set up in many cities and were run by reformers who sought to keep juveniles out of adult prisons and away from adult criminals. The first house named the New York House of Refuge was established in New York City. The purpose of these houses was to train their occupants in industrial skills and teach them morality and religion; however, it was later discovered that the children were abused rather than reformed. Numerous scandals led to the closing of these “prisons”.
By the mid-19th century, reformers were demanding that special courts be established for the purpose of dealing with delinquent minors. Illinois took notice of these demands. Although both neglected and vagrant juveniles fell into the category of delinquent minors, the primary focus of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899 was that of crimes committed by children. In fact, this Act became America’s first juvenile code and was a direct result of the outrage expressed by reformers about the treatment of children in the court system. It also set the stage for what became known as the Juvenile Court Philosophy.
Under the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, many changes were accomplished regarding the treatment of delinquent children. Firstly, a special court was created for delinquent or neglected juveniles who were less than sixteen years of age. The intent of this court was to rehabilitate rather than punish children. In the words of Federal Court Judge and reformer Julian Mack, “…Why is it not just and proper to treat these juvenile offenders as we deal with the neglected children, as a wise and merciful father handles his own child whose errors are not discovered by the authorities”.
Also under the Juvenile Court Philosophy, children were to be incarcerated separate from adults in order to prevent them from being corrupted by adult offenders. Children under the age of twelve were also prohibited from being detained in police stations and jails. Another change was that in contrast to adult courts, the proceedings in juvenile courts were to be in informal and these courts were not to operate according to the legal model. Instead, they were to use the techniques of the newly-developed social and behavioral sciences to discover why the individual child committed his/her crimes. Julian Mack also stated that, “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…”.
There has been much debate among scholars as to the origins of the reforms that led to the founding of juvenile courts. Some believe that advocates of the juvenile court movement were motivated by concern for the welfare of children. Others argue they were more interested in protecting their traditional values from the increasing threat of urbanism and industrialism which was present at the turn of the 20th century.
Between the years of 1899 and 1917, all but three states established special courts for juveniles. In the years surrounding World War I, the Juvenile Court Philosophy, fueled by the Progressive movement, swept across the country. Regardless of the motives that led to the creation of the juvenile courts, by 1925, the Juvenile Court Philosophy took hold across America.
From their very beginning until 1966, juvenile courts operated without legal monitoring or oversight. Opponent of these courts declared that they were not courts at all because there was no place for lawyers or reporters in the juvenile court system. When constitutional challenges against the juvenile courts began to emerge, the courts were upheld due the fact that proceedings in these courts were civil rather than criminal and rehabilitative rather than punitive.
Beginning with Kent v. United States in 1966 and continuing with In Re Gault of the same year, the Supreme Court has looked upon the operation of the juvenile courts and found that, in the words of Justice Fortas: ” While there can be no doubt of the original laudable purpose of juvenile courts…There is much evidence that some juvenile courts… lack the personnel, facilities and techniques to perform adequately as representatives of the State in a parens patriae [State as parent] capacity, at least with respect to children charged with law violation”. According to Justice Fortas, juveniles receive the worst of both worlds because they get neither the protection afforded to adults under the law nor the care or rehabilitative treatment that children need.
In the 1966 Kent case, the methods the juvenile court used to waive its jurisdiction and transfer a specific case to adult court were challenged. In response, the Court held that juveniles have the right to a hearing on the question of waiver, that counsel has a right to access the social records used by the court to make it decision to waive its jurisdiction, and any order of waiver must be accompanied by a statement of reasons the court used to make its decision to transfer the case to adult court.
In more recent years, there have been several changes within the juvenile justice system. These changes have been widely influenced by legislative proposals including the Uniform Juvenile Court Act and the Juvenile Justice Standards. The end result has been the emergence of two trends that run against the traditional juvenile court model. Due to changes in the way society looks upon juvenile crime, the precedents set in these specialized courts have made this system one that is not much different than its adult counterpart. In more recent years, juveniles, with a few exceptions, are treated more and more as adults by the court system. Perhaps, this is because nowadays, juveniles are committing more heinous crimes than in years past.
(2004). The Juvenile Justice System: Changing Perspectives. In S. M. Davis, E. S. Scott, W. Wadlington, & C. H. Whitebread, Children In The Legal System (pp. 857-861). New York: Foundation Press.
From Houses of Refuge to ‘Youth Corrections’: Same Story, Different Day”. (2005). Retrieved June 16, 2010, from Sheldensays.com: http://www.sheldensays.com/Res-twelve.htm