History of Juvenile Justice in the United States

From an historical perspective, the concept of having a separate legal framework for juvenile offenders is relatively new.  Throughout history, children as young as 7 years old who were accused of wrongdoing were imprisoned with adults. In the early nineteenth century, the idea of reforming youth offenders took root in the United States.  The House of Refuge in New York, which opened in 1824, was the first juvenile house of reform in the United States. This was the first attempt to house juvenile offenders in a separate facility and other States, like Maryland, would soon follow suit.

Supported by emerging research and science regarding child development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reformers across the country championed the cause of not punishing youthful offenders like adults but, rather, rehabilitating them.

In 1899, Cook County in the State of Illinois established the first juvenile court.  Within 30 years, virtually all of the states had established juvenile courts. 

The primary difference between juvenile courts and adult courts was that the juvenile courts were "civil" in nature while adult courts were "criminal."  The benefit of a "civil" proceeding was that the courts could focus on the youth, rather than the alleged offense, and have a range of options geared towards the youth's rehabilitation.  The legal doctrine of "parens patriae" formed the foundation of juvenile courts and meant that the State was given the authority to make decisions for the benefit of the child as a parent would.  The doctrine of "parens patriae" continues to the present time in the juvenile justice system as well as in schools.

Until the late 1960's, youth in the juvenile court system did not have constitutional legal rights. That changed with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1967 decision in In re Gault.  In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that even though juvenile courts were civil proceedings, juveniles subject to these proceedings still faced a potential loss of liberty.  For that reason, the Supreme Court required that all youth offenders involved in juvenile court proceedings and facing possible confinement have the following constitutional rights:

  • The right to receive notice of charges
  • The right to obtain legal counsel
  • The right to confrontation and cross-examination
  • The privilege against self-incrimination
  • The right to receive a transcript of the proceedings, and
  • The right to have an appellate court review the lower court's decision.

On the heels of the In re Gault decision, the U.S. Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act in 1968.  That Act required states to develop plans designed to address and curb juvenile delinquency in the community in order to receive federal funding. 

As a follow-up, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in 1974 that added further protections for youth in the juvenile justice system in the U.S.  Specifically, the Act and its subsequent amendments required that (1) youth offenders were to have "sight and sound separation" from adult offenders to prevent any contact between the two groups; (2) youth who have committed "status" offenses (i.e. curfew, truancy, alcohol possession, etc.) could not be placed in a juvenile or adult detention facility; (3) youth could not be detained in adult jails unless certain requirements were met; and (4) states create plans to reduce the number of minority youth (i.e. "disproportionate minority contact") in the juvenile justice system. 

The Act also created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is now a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Institute for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency.

In the 1980's and 1990's, juvenile crime across the nation rose dramatically.  In response, states across the U.S., including Maryland, enacted laws  that required law enforcement and the courts to automatically charge youth  as adults if they were alleged to have committed certain violent crimes and weapons offenses. 

While the "tough on crime" laws of the 1980's and 1990's remain in effect, there has been a renewed effort in the first decade of the new century to focus on deinstitutionalizing juvenile offenders and addressing their needs through smaller facility-based settings or community-based treatment.  This renewed emphasis on rehabilitation of even the most difficult youth in the juvenile justice system is in keeping with the 100 year old mission and purpose of the modern juvenile justice system.