The Juvenile Court System: History & Structure

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  • 0:01 Juvenile Justice System
  • 0:16 History
  • 2:20 The Structure
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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 court system. We will look at what the background of the system is, the components and how it works today.

Juvenile Justice System

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 were 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 Structure

Today, the structure of the juvenile court remains essentially the same as it did decades ago. When a juvenile gets processed into the system, the juvenile can be held in custody at a detention home throughout the entire court process without having bond. The juvenile court system places a large emphasis on moving the cases quickly, however, so pre-trials and court hearings are set in a speedy manner.

In juvenile court, a juvenile does not have a right to a jury trial unless he is 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. Bindovers are mainly done in serious cases, such as murder. Therefore, most juvenile cases are tried in front of a judge. This is called a bench trial.

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