American Juvenile Justice System: What you need to Know

American Juvenile Justice System: Children who committed crimes were treated and punished the same way as adults before profound economic and social changes swept the landscape of America. Even in the 18th century, there was no distinction between children and adults regarding punishment. This attitude began to shift in the mid-nineteenth century when many people migrated from rural to urban areas. A new approach to assessing American youth and their crimes emerged. The modern American juvenile justice system arose as part of the progressive movement that began in the twentieth century due to industrialization, which resulted in the development of large cities, increased immigration, and a massive increase in criminal activity.

American Juvenile Justice System Images

American Juvenile Justice System

In this article, we will go over the evolution of the American juvenile justice system, its past, present, and future, some landmark cases, the significant challenges this structure faces, and the changes that could be implemented.

What is Juvenile Delinquency, and Who is a Juvenile Delinquent?

Before we get into the American Juvenile Justice System, let’s define the terms juvenile delinquency and juvenile delinquent mean. Juvenile delinquency occurs in a child when his antisocial inclinations become so severe that he becomes or should become the subject of official action. A juvenile delinquent is under the age specified by a specific law in the country and exhibits behaviour that is harmful to himself and society.

The Establishment of the Juvenile Courts

Before the 18th century, there was no distinction between children and adults regarding criminal punishment. Early reformers were horrified to learn that children were imprisoned alongside hardened criminals in America. They argued that instead of labelling a child as guilty or innocent, one should consider what motivated them to commit the crime in the first place. They believed that children were inherently good and needed to “feel that he is the object of [the state’s] care and solicitude” rather than being arrested or on trial. As a result, the rules of criminal procedure were utterly inapplicable to them.

These views gained traction as industrialization gained a firm foothold in American society. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century progressive and reformation movements resulted in the establishment of the first juvenile court in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, in 1899, based on the legal doctrine of paren patriae. The Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899 established special rules and procedures for dealing with children under the age of 16 and served as a model for future juvenile legislation. Children were not subjected to adversarial trials in adult courts; they were viewed as immature individuals who were unaware of the full consequences of their actions. Their character and social backgrounds were investigated, and they attempted to determine why he did what he did. As a result, a new concept of juvenile justice emerged, in which young offenders were referred to as “delinquents” rather than criminals. The juvenile system gave emphasis to rehabilitation than retribution. Juvenile halls and reformatories were established so juveniles would not have to enter prisons or jails with adult offenders. A learning and supportive environment in this setting would replace penalty.

The establishment of the Illinois juvenile court signalled the beginning of the establishment of juvenile courts throughout the United States. People were classified as juveniles when they were 16, 17, or 18.

The Role of the Supreme Court in the American Juvenile Justice System

The involvement of the Supreme Court in the juvenile justice system has affected, in multiple ways, the proceedings of juvenile cases and the protection offered to them within the system.

The Case of In re Gault

Gerald Gault, a 15-year-old boy, was detained for making salacious phone calls. His parents were not informed of his arrest or the charges brought against him, and he was declared a delinquent after two hearings. He was sent to a State Industrial School for six years. The Supreme Court ruled that the procedure used in this case was unconstitutional because the youth were not afforded the same constitutional protection as adult criminals. The Supreme Court stated that juveniles have the right to counsel, obtain prior notice of the date on which the hearings are to be held, question witnesses who testify against them, and assert their right to silence.

The Case of In re Winship

In 1969, 12-year-old Samuel Winship was accused of stealing $112 from a woman’s wallet. The New York Family Court ruled Winship guilty by an abundance of relevant evidence, notwithstanding the fact that the Family Court acknowledged that Winship’s testimony was not corroborated or dubious in nature. The Supreme Court ruled that the evidence used against the juveniles must not be of a dubious nature but based on solid evidence like in the case of adult criminals.

The decisions made in these two cases revealed a dissatisfaction between traditional court reformers who believe children should have all of the due protection and rights found in the traditional court system and those who think the juvenile court should not be run along the lines of the conventional court set up to deal with hardened criminals. Regardless, the Supreme Court granted juveniles certain rights similar to those given to adult criminals; however, the US Supreme Court upheld that there are significant differences between juvenile and adult courts that cannot be eliminated.

Changes Brought About in the American Juvenile Justice System

The National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed in the year 1974, and its primary provisions are:

  1. Status Offenders’ Deinstitutionalization: Status offenders are juveniles who have committed crimes like truancy, running away, violating curfew, and possessing alcohol or tobacco, and these would not be considered criminal offenses in the case of adults. 
  2. Sight and Sound Separation: This provision ensures that juveniles are not imprisoned in jails or detention centres where they can contact adult criminals.
  3. Adult Jail: Juveniles must not be sent to adult jails at any cost.
  4. Racial and Ethnic Disparities: This provision aims to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.

However, as time has passed, the amount of adolescent crimes in American society has increased, and it has become more violent in nature. By 1994, the number of homicides and aggravated assaults committed by teenagers aged 13 to 17 doubled. School violence is on the rise as well. As a result, the American public and legislators believe that a harsher process for juvenile crime adjudication should be implemented in order to respond to the extreme nature of the situation. As a result, the number of cases in which juveniles are transferred to adult criminal courts and tried as criminals rather than juvenile transgressors is increasing.

Reforms Proposed for Improving the American Juvenile Justice System

  • Positive youth development (PYD) refers to the efforts of other youths, adults, and various agencies to provide opportunities for the child to improve their skills, interests, and abilities. PYD believes in the social learning theory, which states that when youth learn skills, are appropriately rewarded for using those skills, and have strong, positive relationships with others, they are less likely to engage in criminal behaviour.
  • A 2006 survey found that most juvenile offenders in state institutions reported mental health illness and trauma symptoms. As a result, widespread and functional mental health services are required.
  • Neurobiology and developmental psychology research indicate that a young adult’s brain does not fully develop until their mid-20s. Taking this into account, some argue that the age at which youths are considered juvenile delinquents should include children over 18.

Conclusion- The Future of the American Juvenile Justice System

Since its inception in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American Juvenile Justice System has undergone enormous changes. With the rise in juvenile crime, many American youths face harsh punishment for even minor offences. They are frequently treated as adult criminals. While this provides them with the protection afforded to adult criminals, it also exposes them to a system designed to dispense harsh justice rather than promote development and progress. The system’s future is uncertain; reformers such as Robert Dawson believe that the juvenile justice system should be “merged” with the existing criminal justice system. On the contrary, sociologist and criminologist Marvin Wolfgang advocates entirely for this system’s abolition. However, no single belief can alter the entire system. Most likely, the system will continue to adapt to social changes and, in the end, become a successful and near-flawless system.

Also Read: 10 Major Social Problems in the World


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Meng, A., Segal, R., & Boden, E. (2013). American juvenile justice system: history in the making. In Adolescent Psychiatry (pp. 227-232).

Vargas, R. (2013, July 15). American Juvenile Justice: Past, Present, and Future.

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My name is Ragini Chettri and I have a Master’s degree in sociology. Although I have a deep sense of attachment to all aspects of the discipline, I am particularly interested in contemporary sociological theories, and gender and media studies. I am fond of reading books (both fictional and non-fictional). I am extremely passionate about teaching, for when you teach you learn more than ever, and I firmly believe that learning is a never-ending process. So, here’s to reading and learning and, of course, to developing what C. Wright Mills termed the “sociological imagination”.