Case workers in Juvenile Justice have long been concerned about a subversive movement in the back halls of Congress and many state houses to erase any distinction between young offenders and adult criminals. As recently as the 1990s almost all 50 states overhauled their juvenile justice laws, allowing more youths to be tried as adults and scrapping long-time protections to help rehabilitate delinquent kids and prevent future crimes. Only ignorance of the history of juvenile justice in United States could be responsible for a now subdued but continued movement to “simplify” criminal justice by merging juveniles and adults together in the eyes of the law. May we take a moment to remind everyone how our juvenile justice system evolved to its present effective state.
A Brief History of Juvenile Justice
Our juvenile court system in the various states has been one of the most successful criminal justice programs ever devised.
- Between 1880 and 1920, social conditions in the United States were characterized by large waves of immigration and a dramatic increase in urbanization. As a direct result, hundreds of indigent children wandered the streets, and many became involved in criminal activity. Children and youth were seen as "miniature adults" and thus tried and punished as adults. Children who were convicted of crimes were housed with adult criminals.
- Social activists, law makers, and other officials soon realized that children institutionalized with adults were learning adult criminal behaviors and were exiting those institutions ready for lifetime careers as criminals.
- In 1925, this mistreatment of juveniles became a focus of the Progressive Movement and, as a result, nearly every state began adopting laws providing for separate juvenile proceedings that centered on prevention and rehabilitation rather than retribution and punishment.
- Separate juvenile court systems and accompanying correctional institutions were developed, and the juvenile court system was established in the United States with the first court appearing in Illinois in 1899.
- These juvenile courts operated under the philosophy of parens patriae, meaning the state could act "as a parent" and gave juvenile courts the power to intervene whenever court officials felt intervention was in the best interests of the child. Any offense committed was secondary to the offender.
- The statute also gave the court jurisdiction over dependent, neglected, and delinquent children. This understanding of the link between child victimization, family disorder, and the potential for child victims to become offenders without early and effective intervention continues to be an important part of the juvenile court philosophy today.
Something is Working
Case workers insist that the overall juvenile justice effort over the past 20 years has been successful and that recurring subversive sympathies are both misplaced and misguided.
They cite the following data to support their confidence in everyone who labors in juvenile justice on behalf of America's youth.
- The number of juvenile arrests reached a new low in 2019. Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made an estimated 696,620 arrest of persons age 18, 58% less than the number of arrests in 2010.
- Juvenile arrests for property crime offenses fell 73% between 2008 and 2019.
- Recently, Connecticut commissioned the first state-wide evaluation of its alternative to sentencing program for juveniles. The report concluded that young offenders sentenced to alternative programs have a significantly lower rate of rearrest than juveniles sentenced to adult correctional facilities.
The original impetus back in 1925 - dealing with juvenile offenders separate from adult offenders to prevent vulnerable youth from becoming lifetime criminals by impressionable association - has proven to be the actual outcome almost 100 years later. The reduction in juvenile arrests and convictions directly correlates with the reduction in the recidivism rate.
As they say, “if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.”