History of Juvenile Delinquency

Instructor: Altagrace Choute

Altagrace has over 5 years experience instructing Criminal Justice Students. She currently holds a Masters degree in Criminal Justice.

A juvenile delinquent is a minor that commits crimes that are prosecuted through the juvenile justice system. In this lesson, we will have the opportunity to discuss some major events that occurred throughout the history of juvenile delinquency and what it looks like today.


A juvenile delinquent is an individual who repeatedly commits a crime or crimes, but are not prosecuted by law as an adult due to their minor age. However, based on the crime committed and the severity of the crime, a juvenile may be prosecuted as an adult depending on the state's law.

In the Beginning (1500s)

Could you imagine committing a crime at the age of 11 and having to be confined in a facility with adult offenders? Or having to be subjected to harsh punishment for the crime you committed? Today, our current juvenile justice system ensures that juveniles are dealt with accordingly and focus more on rehabilitating a juvenile by working with them in their home, the community and school. However, this has not always been the case.

Prior to the 1800s, if a juvenile committed a crime, they were punished the same way in which an adult would be punished. The ideology of treating juveniles the same as adults all stemmed from the English Common Law . Under the English Common Law, juveniles were forced into working and were often trained into agricultural or domestic work. Further, many juveniles were apprenticed into adulthood. The same practices under the English Common Law quickly made its way into America and continued until the early nineteenth century.

Although the same practices were established here and juveniles were being tried as adults for crimes in which they committed, civic leaders decided to focus on alternative ways to alleviate the harsh conditions in which juveniles were being subjected to. Thus, they began to refer to themselves as the child savers. The main goal of the child savers was to improve the behaviors of juveniles by creating programs, activities, and providing care to these youths.

Saving Our Children (1800s)

The 1800s was the beginning of the Child Saving Movement. With the creation of this movement, the child savers focus was to create programs that focused on reforming juveniles. To accomplish this, the New York House of Refuge was instituted in 1825. The idea behind this institution was to take those juveniles who were considered at risk on the streets and reform them into a setting that was conducive to them, which was usually in a family like setting.

Most of the youths who were admitted into the House of Refuge, were status offenders or children whom their parents were not able to monitor their behaviors. In many cases, they were ordered by court to be placed into this institution. The House of Refuge opened its doors caring for under 10 youths and within a decade of its operation, they had over 1600 youths in which they were working with. As the years went on and seeing the success of it, several other states constructed similar institutions.

While there were, several institutions focused on reforming delinquent youths, there began to be growing concerns as to the treatment of these youths in these institutions. The same issues that we currently face today in many of our correctional facilities, the same was occurring within the House of Refuge. The institution began to see an overcrowding of youth, poor conditions in caring for them and issues with administration. Because of this, the child savers petitioned for there to be a juvenile court and the first one was established in 1899 in Illinois.

Juvenile Court (1900s)

In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Illinois. The development of the juvenile court was to allow for it to have jurisdiction over any child under the age of 16 who was guilty of violating the law, providing care to those children who were being neglected, and to ensure the separation of juvenile and adult offenders. The establishment of the Juvenile Court Act of 1899 was a major movement in the juvenile justice system. How juveniles were punished for crimes in which they committed, was a lot different than the punishment handed down to adult offenders. The concept behind the juvenile justice system was to allow youths to admit to their guilt and focus on rehabilitating the juveniles not through punishment but rather by identifying what the needs of the youth was and finding a solution for their problem.

In the late 1900s, there were major changes to how the juvenile justice system handled these cases. In 1960, the Supreme Court decided juveniles should have the right to due process. This would mean they would have the same rights as that of an adult offender to include, the right to confront their witness, the right to counsel and formal notice of the charges against them.

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