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History & Evolution of the Juvenile Justice System

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  • 0:02 Juvenile Justice…
  • 2:15 The Evolution
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the history of the juvenile justice system. We will look at the evolution of the system and what contributed to its development.

Juvenile Justice System History

The juvenile court system addresses court cases that involve individuals under the age of eighteen-years-old. The system is over one-hundred years old, and the origins will be discussed here.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the law drew a divide between juveniles and adults. This line was typically drawn where the offender could determine the wrongfulness of his actions.

Children under the age of seven were determined to be infants, who could not know that their acts were wrong and therefore could not be found guilty of a felony. A felony is a criminal action that is punishable by prison time.

Children over the age of fourteen-years-old were determined to be capable of understanding the wrongfulness of their acts and were treated like adults. Children in the range of seven to fourteen were not so easily classified. Therefore, if they seemed to understand that their acts were wrong, then they could be treated as adults. If children in this zone did not seem to understand, then they were treated as infants.

Later in the nineteenth century, the treatment of juveniles began to change. Reformers believed that there needed to be special facilities to deal with troubled juveniles who found themselves in trouble with the law. Therefore, Chicago and New York became the first two cities in the United States to house juvenile offenders separate from adult offenders. Then, in 1899, Cook County, Illinois, opened the first juvenile court.

The theory of the juvenile court was to rehabilitate juvenile offenders not punish them. The doctrine of parens patriae, meaning parent of the country, became the guiding light to allow the state to serve as the guardian of juveniles with physical, legal or mental disabilities. The courts followed the 'best interests of the child' in determining what would help the juvenile become a productive member of society. In some cases, this meant removing the juvenile from the home and placing him in an institution in order to rehabilitate him in the most effective way possible.

The Evolution

Today, the structure of the juvenile court remains essentially the same as it did decades ago. What has evolved are the interpretation of the rights that juveniles possess while working their way through the system.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 established that every citizen, including a juvenile, has the right to have an attorney in a criminal proceeding via Gideon v. Wainwright. Because of this case, integrated into the structure of the juvenile court process is the juvenile's attorney, who answers any questions a juvenile may have and represents their legal rights in court.

Depending on the seriousness of the offense and the juvenile's age when he committed the offense, he may be facing a bindover. A bindover is a proceeding to determine if the juvenile should be tried as an adult in court instead of as a minor. This bindover proceeding to determine where a juvenile case is held has not always existed. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, ruled in Kent v. United States that a juvenile is entitled to a hearing where his attorney can have access to all records and in which the court provides a written statement of all the reasons for the bindover to the adult system.

Through the U.S. Supreme Court case In re Gault in 1967, juvenile constitutional trial rights were settled. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in cases that could result in incarceration for a juvenile, that they had the same trial rights as an adult, such as the right to a lawyer, to question witnesses and the right against self-incrimination.

Even after In re Gault was decided, the weight of the evidence required to adjudicate, or find guilty, a juvenile had not been settled. It wasn't until In re Winship was decided in 1970 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, just as in adult court, juveniles had a right to have their cases proved 'by proof beyond a reasonable doubt' before they could be adjudicated. This serves to protect the juvenile's due process rights through the U.S. Constitution.

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