Jeffrey A. Butts (2002). The Juvenile Court. In The Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice (Second Edition). Joshua Dressler (Editor). New York: Macmillan Reference (Volume 3, pp. 937-947).
Juvenile courts in the United States are legally responsible for young people who are arrested by the police or otherwise accused of breaking the criminal laws of their community. Some areas of the country do not have courts actually called juvenile courts. Law violations by young people may be handled by probate courts, juvenile divisions of a circuit court, or even comprehensive family courts. In every community, however, some form of court is charged with responding to cases in which a person under the age of adulthood (a juvenile) is suspected of breaking the law. Since these courts have jurisdiction over juveniles and they follow the same general principles of juvenile law, it is conventional to refer to them simply as juvenile courts.
Many juvenile courts handle other types of cases. They often handle dependency cases (or matters involving abused and neglected children) and youth charged with noncriminal acts (or status offenses) such as curfew violations, running away from home, and truancy. Other juvenile courts (especially those known as family courts) may handle domestic violence and child custody matters. Typically, however, a juvenile court’s caseload is made up of law violations, status offenders, and dependency cases. Law violations usually account for about half of this workload.
Young people who violate the law before reaching the legal age of adulthood are referred to as juveniles in order to indicate that they are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court rather than the criminal (or adult) court. Technically, juveniles cannot be arrested for committing crimes because the criminal code does not apply to young people under a certain age (usually age seventeen or eighteen). Rather than charging them with a crime, juveniles are usually arrested for committing acts of delinquency. A twenty-five year old who steals a car is arrested for the crime of auto theft. A fifteen year old who does the same thing is taken into custody for an act of delinquency that would have been considered auto theft if that youth had been an adult.
America’s system of juvenile law was founded on the premise that, due to their immaturity, young people accused of crimes should be handled differently than adults. Ideally, the juvenile court is more responsive than an adult court would be to the social and developmental characteristics of children and youth. The services and sanctions imposed by juvenile courts should be designed to do more than punish wrongdoing. They should address the causes of the youth’s misbehavior and eventually restore the youth to full and responsible membership in his or her family as well as the larger community. Some contemporary critics doubt whether this mission is achievable or even desirable in all cases.
Juvenile courts emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period in American history known as the Progressive era. Practitioners, policymakers, and historians often see the juvenile court’s history quite differently. Some characterize the founding of the first juvenile court as the culmination of many years of effort to guard the safety and well-being of youth in the justice system. In this view, the invention of the juvenile court was sparked by social reformers and activists who understood that children are different from adults and should be held less culpable for their unlawful behavior. Reformers worked to create a separate juvenile court, both to protect youth from harm and to provide earlier and more rehabilitative interventions for young offenders.
There is another, entirely different explanation for the emergence of the juvenile court. Historians and sociologists have noted that despite the rhetoric of social reformers, many early proponents of the juvenile court were interested in crime control. Before the development of juvenile courts, young offenders appeared in criminal court alongside adult defendants. Judges and jurors found many youth innocent or simply dismissed the charges against them. Acquittal was preferable to sending a young defendant to a nineteenth-century prison, especially when the defendant appeared socially and physically immature. In the late 1800s, police and prosecutors in many of the nation’s large cities were frustrated with the criminal court’s inability to sanction young offenders. They welcomed the idea of a separate juvenile court system. Such a court, they argued, would be more capable of responding to juveniles on their own terms and more likely to intervene, even in cases of relatively minor offenses and very young defendants.
The nation’s first juvenile court opened in Chicago in 1899. By 1909, twenty states had established juvenile courts and all but a few had done so by the end of the 1920s. Although each jurisdiction established its juvenile court system with its own procedures and structure, juvenile courts across the United States were generally designed to focus on early intervention and rehabilitation and to emphasize an individualized approach to youth crime. Juvenile court judges based their decisions on the unique circumstances of each offender rather than simply the severity of the offense. The goal of criminal (adult) courts was to determine guilt and dispense the right punishment for each crime. Juvenile courts were asked to investigate the causes of bad behavior and then devise a package of sanctions and services to put juveniles back on the right track.
To give juvenile courts the flexibility they would need to fulfill this mission, lawmakers allowed the juvenile court process to meet a significantly lower standard of evidence and due process. Juvenile law was codified entirely separately from criminal law. The facts of a case were not used to establish guilt but to document the occurrence of delinquency. Judges were not required to follow detailed procedures or to adhere to complex legal rules. There were fewer legal formalities in order to free the juvenile court to intervene quickly and comprehensively with each youth accused of violating the law. Even when a juvenile was merely suspected of criminal involvement, a juvenile court judge could take jurisdiction over the matter, place the youth on probation, or even hold the youth in secure custody.
The juvenile court’s expansive authority was derived from several concepts in English legal tradition. The most important of these was parens patriae, or roughly “the nation as parent.” Parens patriae suggested that the government had an obligation and a duty to look after the interests of children when natural parents were unable to do so. Long before the concept was discovered by American reformers, England’s Chancery Courts had been invoking parens patriae to take temporary custody of land and property that belonged to the orphaned children of wealthy families. In the mid-1800s, American courts had used parens patriae as a justification for placing recalcitrant children in “houses of refuge,” an early type of reformatory. America’s juvenile court founders argued that parens patriae also allowed the government to take charge of any child that was destitute, neglected, or ill behaved. This arrangement gave the juvenile court an unprecedented degree of power and discretion.
Within a few decades of the juvenile court’s founding, some observers began to wonder whether lawmakers’ ambitions for the juvenile court had been excessive. Public criticism of the juvenile court intensified. Juvenile courts, especially those in urban areas, began to exhibit the worst features of criminal courts. Caseloads swelled, courtrooms fell into disrepair, and staff became disenchanted and disinterested. During the 1950s, legal activists began to challenge the sweeping discretion given to juvenile court judges. One influential law review article charged juvenile courts with violating important principles of equal protection and argued that “rehabilitation may be substituted for punishment, but a Star Chamber cannot be substituted for a trial” (Mathew Beemsterboer, quoted in Manfredi, p. 39).
As with other social reform efforts, it is difficult to say whether frustration with the juvenile court was borne of faulty conceptualization or poor execution. The direction taken by juvenile justice policy, however, was unmistakable. During the latter half of the twentieth century, lawmakers began to infuse the juvenile court with the values and orientation of the criminal court. Many states altered their laws to reduce the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings and juvenile court records. Most states increased the legal formalities used in juvenile court and shifted the focus of the juvenile justice process away from individualized intervention. Instead, juvenile courts and juvenile justice agencies began to focus on public safety and offender accountability. In addition, nearly all states enacted laws to send more youth to criminal court where they could be tried and punished as adults. In the span of a single century, the American justice system had enthusiastically embraced and then largely rejected the concept of viewing the illegal behaviors of young people as something other than crime.
By the end of the juvenile court’s first century, it had been largely redesigned in the image of the criminal court. Yet, every jurisdiction in the United States continued to operate some form of juvenile court. The structure of juvenile courts across the country varied considerably. As the juvenile court concept spread across the United States in the early twentieth century, lawmakers invented a variety of structures for the new courts in order to incorporate juvenile court ideals into existing procedures and policies. Even today, the purposes and procedures of juvenile courts vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Many communities in the United States do not even have actual juvenile courts. Frequently, the court responsible for handling young people accused of law violations is a division of some other court, such as a superior court or a circuit court (Rottman). In Connecticut, for example, the juvenile court is part of the Superior Court, which is a court of general jurisdiction. There are thirteen districts for handling juvenile matters in Connecticut although criminal and civil matters are organized into twenty-two separate geographic areas. In Georgia, the juvenile court is a separate court of limited jurisdiction and every one of Georgia’s 159 counties has a juvenile court. Colorado handles delinquency cases in twenty-two district courts, which are courts of general jurisdiction. However, the city of Denver has its own separate juvenile court that is also a court of general jurisdiction. In contrast, Utah’s juvenile courts are operated as a single, statewide structure of limited jurisdiction courts, and twenty different branches are divided among eight judicial districts.
In addition to differences in structure and organization, juvenile courts across the United States also vary considerably in their responsibilities and activities. Most states give their juvenile courts legal jurisdiction over cases involving delinquency, abuse and neglect, and status offense proceedings. Some juvenile courts also have jurisdiction over adoptions, terminations of parental rights, interstate compact matters, emancipation, and consent (i.e., to marry, enlist in the armed services, be employed, and so on). Occasionally, juvenile courts may even have jurisdiction over traffic violations and child support matters.
The scope of the juvenile court’s responsibility for delinquency cases is generally defined by state law. In most jurisdictions, the juvenile court handles any act committed by a juvenile for which an adult could be prosecuted in criminal court. This would include everything from relatively minor offenses (e.g., loitering, disturbing the peace, and vandalism), to more serious offenses including weapons violations, drug offenses, arson, property offenses (e.g., shoplifting, theft, and burglary), and person offenses (e.g., assault, robbery, and homicide).
Most juvenile courts have responsibility for law violations committed by youth through the age of seventeen, but the upper age of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction varies from state to state. In 1999, the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was fifteen in Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina, and age sixteen in ten states (Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin). In the remaining thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia, the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was seventeen. In every state, there are exceptions when a youth below the state’s upper age of jurisdiction can be placed under the original jurisdiction of the adult criminal court. For example, in most states if a youth of a certain age is charged with an offense from a defined list of “excluded offenses,” the case must originate in criminal court.
The formal goals and purposes of the juvenile court can be quite different from state to state. During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of states modified the formal missions of their juvenile court systems to incorporate a greater emphasis on punishment or accountability. In nine states, for example, lawmakers give the juvenile court an explicit mandate to hold young offenders accountable for their law violations by exacting proportionate retribution or punishment (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Rhode Island). Other states emphasize prevention and rehabilitation as the formal goals of their juvenile courts (for example, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia). In most states, the formal mission of the juvenile court is to achieve a combination of youth rehabilitation and public safety.
The people who work in juvenile courts often include judges, attorneys (prosecution and defense), administrators, clerks, bailiffs, and a wide range of other staff such as secretaries, security guards, and maintenance workers. For the most part, however, when one thinks of juvenile court personnel, the primary categories are judges, attorneys, caseworkers (probation officers), and court administrative staff (executive and clerical).
Some juvenile courts focus primarily on fact finding. Juveniles brought before such courts are usually referred to other agencies following disposition. These courts are likely to have few employees—a judge, perhaps a court reporter, and a clerk. Other juvenile courts provide a full array of pretrial and postdisposition services and require large professional staffs. Juvenile courts in more than half of the states administer their own probation departments and many are responsible for their own juvenile detention centers as well. These full-service courts essentially function as social welfare agencies, correctional facilities, and collection agencies. Jurisdictions also vary in the extent of their pre-court screening of cases, partly because they vary in the degree to which law enforcement agencies divert youths from the juvenile justice system. If the local police send virtually all cases forward for court handling, the juvenile court’s intake process must contend with a diverse population of youth and the court is required to employ more staff.
Many juvenile courts employ referees, masters, or commissioners to conduct juvenile court hearings. In some jurisdictions, these nonjudicial hearing officers handle a large portion of the juvenile court’s workload. Their authority is often limited to entering findings and recommendations that require confirmation by a judge to become final. Because nonjudicial hearing officers usually earn less salary than judges, some courts rely heavily on referees and masters. Nonjudicial hearing officers may outnumber judges in a particular court by as much as seven to one. Some observers have expressed concern that the widespread use of nonjudicial hearing officers demonstrates a troublesome attitude among state legislatures and perhaps the public—that the juvenile court is an inferior forum and thus judges are not required (Rubin, 1981).
Another growing concern about personnel in the juvenile court is that too many juveniles still receive inadequate legal representation. Before the 1960s, there were few defense attorneys in juvenile courts. In many jurisdictions, however, the situation has not improved substantially. In the late 1990s, a joint study by the American Bar Association, the Youth Law Center of San Francisco, and the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia suggested improvements were still needed, including: (1) an increase in the number of defense attorneys and related support personnel; (2) greater equity in funding for juvenile defenders and prosecutors and for juvenile defenders in comparison with adult defenders; (3) more continuing legal training for juvenile defense attorneys; (4) abolition of the practice of using juvenile court as a training ground for new attorneys; (5) a policy to guarantee juveniles effective counsel at all stages of the juvenile court process; and (6) the creation of a training academy for juvenile defense attorneys equivalent to the federally funded training available to juvenile court judges and prosecutors.
The official purpose of the juvenile court is to decide whether a youth should be adjudicated (or judged) as a delinquent. Part of this decision is based upon evidence of the youth’s unlawful behavior, but the decision also involves an assessment of each youth’s individual situation. When a youth is adjudicated delinquent, the juvenile court does not simply impose a sentence commensurate with the severity of the offense. The court determines the best overall response to the entirety of the situation. This response—or disposition—may include elements of punishment and control, but it may also incorporate individual and family services, educational and vocational rehabilitation, and often restitution to the victim or community.
The actual process for handling delinquency cases can vary considerably from community to community. In some jurisdictions, all juvenile arrests are sent directly to the juvenile court where they are reviewed (or screened) by an intake unit within the juvenile court. The court’s intake unit may then determine that the matter should be handled informally (or diverted from the official court process). If not diverted, the case matter may be formally charged (or petitioned) and proceed to an adjudication hearing. In other communities, the juvenile court may not be involved in delinquency cases until another agency (e.g., the prosecutor’s office or a social service agency) has first screened the case. In other words, the intake function is performed outside the juvenile court. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, juveniles arrested by the police are first screened by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice. The department decides whether to forward the case for prosecution in juvenile court or to refer the youth to some form of noncourt diversion program. In contrast, juveniles arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, go directly to the juvenile court and the juvenile court’s intake unit decides whether the case should proceed to adjudication or receive a diversion alternative instead.
Certain processing steps are common to most juvenile justice systems, regardless of terminology, the configuration of the court, or the allocation of service delivery responsibilities. Most juvenile justice systems have some form of intake or initial review of each case. Next there is a pretrial procedure to identify the appropriate charges and the prosecutor (or another agency) decides whether to file a formal petition in the case. Following the charging and petition decisions, the adjudication process begins. If the facts of the case are established, the youth may be formally adjudicated as a delinquent. Finally, a disposition process is used to impose sanctions and services.
Not all cases that merit formal handling are scheduled for adjudication hearings in juvenile court. Instead of filing a formal petition in juvenile court, the intake department (or prosecutor) may decide that a case should be removed from juvenile court and waived to criminal (adult) court. Cases are usually waived to criminal court because they involve serious or violent offenses, or because the youth has a lengthy record of prior offenses. In such cases, a petition is usually filed in juvenile court asking the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction over the case. The juvenile court judge then decides whether the case merits criminal prosecution. If a waiver request is denied, the matter is often immediately scheduled for an adjudication hearing in juvenile court.
At an adjudication hearing, the court hears the evidence and testimony pertaining to the case and the judge decides whether the youth should be adjudicated. If the proceeding results in a failure to adjudicate (analogous to an acquittal), the petition might be dismissed and the case could be considered closed at that point. Even if not adjudicated, a case may be continued in contemplation of dismissal. For instance, the court could recommend that a youth do something prior to dismissal of all charges, such as paying restitution or voluntarily attending drug counseling. Such a case would not be considered complete until the youth followed through as instructed and the charges were dismissed.
Cases that result in adjudication (analogous to conviction) are sent forward for a disposition hearing (analogous to sentencing). At the disposition hearing, the court determines the most appropriate package of services and sanctions for each youth. Options often include commitment to an institution, placement in a group home or other residential facility, probation (either regular or intensive), referral to an outside agency (for drug treatment, mental health services, etc.), community service, and fines or restitution payments. Ideally, the disposition is designed to protect the public safety as well as address each youth’s individual needs and characteristics.
In 1997 juvenile courts throughout the United States handled an estimated 1,755,100 delinquency cases. This was equivalent to nearly 5,000 cases per day. The national caseload in 1997 was more than double the number of cases handled by juvenile courts in 1970.
A property offense was the most serious charge involved in 48 percent of delinquency cases nationwide in 1997. The most serious charge was a person offense in 22 percent of the cases, a drug offense in 10 percent, and a public order offense in 19 percent (i.e., obstruction of justice, disorderly conduct, weapons offenses). Larceny-theft, simple assault, burglary, vandalism, and obstruction of justice were the most common delinquency offenses seen by juvenile courts in 1997. Together, these offenses accounted for 59 percent of all delinquency cases processed by juvenile courts during 1997.
More than half (57 percent) of the delinquency cases handled by U.S. courts with juvenile jurisdiction in 1997 were processed formally (i.e., a petition was filed charging the youth with delinquency). Of all the cases that were formally petitioned and scheduled for an adjudication or waiver hearing in juvenile court in 1997, 58 percent were adjudicated delinquent while less than 1 percent were transferred to adult court. Transfers to adult court were more common in cases involving formally handled person offenses (1.5 percent) and drug offenses (1.1 percent). Of the delinquency cases adjudicated in juvenile court in 1997, 28 percent resulted in out-of-home placement and 55 percent in probation.
To examine changes in juvenile court caseloads while controlling for the size of the population, researchers often examine the per capita rate of delinquency cases (number of cases per 1,000 juveniles in the population). Juvenile population is defined as the number of youth age ten or older who were at or under the upper age of original jurisdiction of the juvenile court according to the laws of their state. Between 1987 and 1996, for example, the national delinquency case rate increased 34 percent, from 46 to 62 cases for every 1,000 youth at risk of referral to juvenile court. The steepest increases between 1987 and 1996 were seen among fifteen year olds (up 45 percent) and sixteen year olds (up 43 percent). The case rate for juveniles charged with drug offenses and person offenses also grew substantially, 120 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Prior to the 1960s, juveniles accused of delinquent offenses had virtually no due process rights in American juvenile courts. Since the official purpose of the juvenile court process was to help rather than to punish, it was thought to be unnecessary to protect juveniles in the same ways that adult defendants were protected in criminal court. Juveniles arrested for delinquency had no right to an attorney unless they happened to live in a jurisdiction where this was granted to them by state or local law. They had no federal right to inspect or challenge evidence against them, or even be informed of the charges against them. The sweeping discretion of juvenile court judges had never been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court and local judges throughout the country were free to run their juvenile courts as they saw fit.
The situation changed suddenly and dramatically in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in a case known as In re Gault. An Arizona juvenile court judge had institutionalized fifteen-year-old Gerald Gault for making a mildly obscene telephone call to a neighbor. Based on the neighbor’s complaint, Gerald was picked up by the local sheriff and placed in juvenile detention. The juvenile court did not bother to notify Gerald’s family that he was in custody. It never heard testimony from the victim in the case, and it never established whether Gerald had actually made the call. Gerald was committed to a state institution for delinquent boys for the “period of his minority,” or three years. If he had been an adult, his sentence would likely have been a small fine.
The Supreme Court’s reaction to Gault’s appeal was harsh and far-reaching. In any delinquency proceeding in which confinement was a possible outcome, the Court ruled, youth should have the right to formal notice of charges against them and the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, the right to assistance of counsel, and the protection against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court based its ruling on the fact that Gault had clearly been punished by the juvenile court, not treated. The opinion also explicitly rejected the doctrine of parens patriae as the founding principle of juvenile justice. The Supreme Court described the meaning of parens patriae as “murky” and characterized its “historic credentials” as of “dubious relevance.”
Gault was one of a series of juvenile justice cases decided by the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s. Together, the cases imposed significant procedural restrictions on U.S. juvenile courts. By the 1980s, juvenile courts had been “constitutionally domesticated.” Juveniles charged with law violations had far more due process protections, although they were still denied the federal rights of bail, jury trial, and speedy trial. Juvenile courts were required to follow a higher standard of evidence (“reasonable doubt” rather than “preponderance”) and juvenile court adjudication was considered equivalent to a criminal conviction in evaluating double jeopardy claims.
Some critics contend that the consequences of these reforms may not have been fully appreciated by youth advocates or even by the Supreme Court itself. As Justice Potter Stewart warned in his dissent to Gault, the introduction of greater due process for juveniles may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging states to make their juvenile courts more like criminal courts:
The inflexible restrictions that the Constitution so wisely made applicable to adversary criminal trials have no inevitable place in the proceedings of those public social agencies known as juvenile or family courts. And to impose the Court’s long catalog of requirements upon juvenile proceedings in every area of the country is to invite a long step backwards into the nineteenth century. In that era there were no juvenile proceedings, and a child was tried in a conventional criminal court with all the trappings of a conventional criminal trial. So it was that a 12-year-old boy named James Guild was tried in New Jersey for killing Catharine Beakes. A jury found him guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was executed. It was all very constitutional (In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 1967, pp. 79–80).
Justice Stewart’s comments seemed quite prescient as the twentieth century ended. For thirty years following the Gault decision, state legislatures across the U.S. continued the due process reforms endorsed by the Supreme Court. Using various mechanisms, lawmakers greatly limited the discretion of juvenile court judges and made the juvenile court process more evidence-driven and formalized. They also sent far more juveniles directly to criminal court, effectively abolishing the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over many categories of young offenders. The purposes and procedures of juvenile justice were becoming increasingly similar to those of criminal justice. Juvenile justice interventions that once targeted the depth of an offender’s troubles were increasingly focused on the gravity of the offender’s behavior. If the adequacy of intervention was once evaluated by its intensity, it was now to be judged by its duration as well.
As lawmakers reinvented the goals and procedures of juvenile courts in order to make them more like those of criminal courts, they became increasingly interested in new provisions for transferring juveniles to adult court. At first, transfer policies focused on a few exceptional cases, such as the most violent offenders. Soon, however, transfers were expanded to include drug offenders, juveniles accused of weapon charges, and even chronic property offenders. States first attempted merely to increase the number of youth waived to criminal court by judges. Later, the procedural difficulties involved in judicial waiver became burdensome and states began to experiment with other methods of increasing the level of punishment available for juvenile offenders.
New Policy Directions
Lawmakers throughout the country began to experiment with an array of new policy options for young offenders. For example, some states gave judges the power to “blend” criminal court sentences with juvenile court dispositions. Some jurisdictions passed blended sentencing laws that allowed judges to sentence juveniles directly to either juvenile or adult corrections. Other jurisdictions allowed judges to impose sentences that sequentially confined offenders to juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Young offenders would be confined in juvenile facilities until they reached a certain age and then they would be transferred to adult facilities to serve the remainder of their sentences. By the end of the 1990s, at least twenty states had enacted some form of blended sentencing (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia) (Torbet and Szymanski, 1998:6).
Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum policies for juveniles also began to proliferate during the 1990s. As of 1997, 17 states and the District of Columbia had enacted some type of mandatory minimum sentencing for at least some juvenile offenders (Torbet and Szymanski, pp. 7–8). Typically, sentencing guidelines apply only in cases involving violent or serious juvenile offenders as defined by statute. For example, Massachusetts adopted a law that required juveniles at least fourteen years of age who were found responsible for first-degree murder to serve a sentence of at least fifteen years in a correctional facility and juveniles found responsible for second-degree murder were required to serve at least ten years.
Some jurisdictions applied sentencing guidelines to young offenders by first requiring that they be tried in criminal court, but others (e.g., Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming) applied formal sentencing guidelines to the juvenile court. Juvenile dispositions were required to be consistent with a predefined sentencing menu based upon the most recent offense and prior record. The use of structured sentencing contradicted the basic premise of juvenile justice by making dispositions proportional to the severity of an offense rather than to the characteristics and life problems of an offender. Their existence highlights the extent to which the juvenile court has been replaced by a modified criminal court for youthful offenders.
Another significant departure from the traditional juvenile court concept is the growing popularity of allowing juvenile court records to follow young adults into criminal court. By allowing criminal court judges to consider a defendant’s prior juvenile court record at the time of sentencing, states altered the terms of the agreement that created the juvenile court system in the first place. Originally, juveniles essentially agreed to receive less due process in juvenile court in exchange for a less formal, nonstigmatizing, and nonpermanent disposition. By the 1990s, however, the emergence of policies that permitted juvenile court records to enhance the severity of criminal court sentences revoked this arrangement. Defendants could now be imprisoned for many years as a direct result of a previous adjudication in juvenile court. As of 1997, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had statutes, court rules, or case law that allowed this practice (Sanborn, p. 209).
A Remade Juvenile Court
Every jurisdiction in the United States continues to operate a separate juvenile court system, but many youth are ineligible for juvenile court and those that remain experience a juvenile court process that is far more criminalized. Juvenile court procedures are more complex and evidence-driven. Cases are more likely to be formally charged by prosecutors instead of being handled informally by probation workers. Juvenile court dispositions are increasingly governed by offense severity rather than by youth troubles. Defense attorneys are under pressure to defend juvenile clients more vigorously since adjudication may lead to more severe sanctions. Probation officers, prosecutors, and judges openly embrace the goals of retribution and incapacitation. In short, the similarities of the juvenile and adult justice systems are becoming greater than the differences between them. The primary challenge for lawmakers during the twenty-first century may be to decide whether to continue maintaining the separate juvenile court at all.
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