A Brief Overview of the Juvenile Justice System
The Juvenile Justice System is dominated by interpretation, beginning with what a juvenile is within our legal system. Dealing with such a large and important social group within our society it has gained importance through our judicial history. The basis of the system is to provide protection for those who have yet to gain the full protection of the laws as adults. In the age of social media, its role has expanded. Being a part of the judiciary system it is affected by case law and precedent as it continues to grow as a shield for those young people in our society.
According to the Juvenile Delinquency Act, 18 U.S.C.A. § 5031, in our current society, “a juvenile is a person who has not attained his eighteenth birthday” (Blacks, 1991, p. 599). However, even that is suspect to individual state interpretations, some of whom treat children ages 17 through 15 as adults (Siegel, Schmalleger & Worrall, 2015). Through our country’s early years our society was dominated by religion and its emphasis on family structure. This put an emphasis on the parental authority. Troubled youths were handled judicially by “‘child-saving’ judges supposedly tailored their decisions .”, to the well-being of troubled children (Spaeth, 1992, p. 478). As the care for misdirected and troubled youth evolved those people involved concentrated their efforts on forming houses of reform which even though were more of a correctional facility than a place of reform, they were still positive alternatives for the support of youth offenders (Siegel, et al., 2015). As the country industrialized and welcomed immigrants by the millions during the mid-19th century, its cities grew to allow youths to get lost in a labyrinth of urban Social Darwinism. A part of the social reform movement of the time, a group aptly named ‘child savers’ directed their concerns to helping ‘wayward’ youth with associations like the ‘Children’s Aid Society’ of New York formed in 1853 that dealt more with reformation than punishment (Siegel, et al., 2015).
It wasn’t until 1899 that Illinois, under the auspices of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, (Siegel, et al., 2015) followed by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Indiana, adopted “the common law doctrine of parens patraie”, which gave legislatures the authority to safeguard their children (Spaeth, 1992, p. 478) by using separate courts specifically for minors. These early courts were informal, without legal representation the young person would meet with the judge, who would act more like a legal counselor, helping the youth to recognize the error in his / her ways, utilizing probation rather than jail time as punishment (Juvenile Law Center, n.d.).
The system remained essentially the same through much of the 20th century, until the midst of the Civil Rights explosion during the 1960s, when case law began to set parameters to handle juveniles (Spaeth, 1992). Supreme Court precedent was needed because youths were a new legal sub class not covered per se by the Constitution. The Court’s rulings applied various Constitutional protections to adolescents. In re Gault (1967) gave juveniles basic due process rights of having counsel; notification of charges; as well as freedom of self-incrimination (Siegel, et al., 2015). As important was the holding of In re Winship (1970) regarding burden of proof. The Court found that any act committed by a juvenile, if had been committed by an adult where the higher and harder standard of proof of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ would have attached, then that same standard must be applied to adolescents as well (Spaeth, 1992). There is a wide array of standards that the Court ruled upon concerning juveniles and what they could be held for and which they could be protected against. In Roper v. Simmons ( 1993) the Court decided 18 was the red line age for whether the death penalty could be applied to capital crimes committed by youths, citing the 8th Amendment’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ in executing minors (Siegel, et al., 2015).
The interpretations of the Court have been needed in determining mitigating factors of youth development and the capacity of juveniles to acknowledge the consequences of their actions. With the advance of technology, modern juvenile courts must deal with various cases of cyberbullying crimes, besides the rash of children shooting children crimes and the continuing strength and influence of gangs on our youth, all of which has influenced the system to adopt tougher consequences in some cases.
While these cases can be extremely serious, the vast majority of juvenile cases are of a non-violent nature, which has resulted in a process that juveniles are subjected to as they enter the system. The ‘intake’ or initial phase allows them access to the system, after which, in the ‘detention’ phase they are held awaiting adjudication. They are then subjected to a judicial decision which results in a judicial disposition, where the juvenile is dealt with according to their “‘needs and deeds’” (Siegel et al., 2015, p.122). These four distinct steps allow for a juvenile to not be overrun by the system.
The Juvenile justice system is a complicated arena, beset by the difficult questions of how to deal with young people who have committed serious social and legal wrongs, recognizing that they have a life time ahead of them and how to best help them realize that potential. The system utilizes privacy protections in most cases, sealing of records (Siegel, et al., 2015). It must deal with series questions of whether to remove a child from the home, when, how or if at all, to apply adult standards to crimes of the young. The title alone of ‘the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act’ of 2002 (Siegel, et al., 2015) brings light to the desire for society to prevent youths from going down the ‘wrong road’. It is a problematic area that deals with extremes in the range of offenses committed by delinquents of vastly different cognizant stages, which has influenced the system to be more protective and paternal than punitive.
Black, H. C., Nolan, J. R., & Nolan-Haley, J. M. (1991). Black's law dictionary: Definitions of the terms and phrases of American and English jurisprudence, ancient and modern. (pp. 599). (6th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West Pub.
Juvenile Law Center. (n.d.). Retrieved May 04, 2016, from http://jlc.org/news-room/media- resources/youth-justice-system-overview.
Siegel, L. J., Schmalleger, F., & Worrall, J. L. (2015). Juvenile Courts In Courts and Criminal Justice in America (2nd ed., pp.104-129). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.
Spaeth, Harold J. (1992). Juvenile Justice. In K.L. Hall (Ed.). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (pp. 148-149). New York: Oxford University Press.