Juvenile criminal justice is not the slap-on-the-wrist type of system it used to be. In recent years, the United States has taken a “get tough” approach and is trying more and more juveniles as adults, according to a PBS report. The report also states that this has not been effective in reducing the rate of juvenile crime.
Studies have not shown any evidence of increased deterrence. A study conducted in Texas showed that juveniles sentenced as adults did (except in rare cases) receive lengthier sentences than those tried in juvenile court. Now more than ever, juveniles must be aware that the system’s leeway is dissolving.
While this lack of leniency may seem like a brand-new method for dealing with young offenders, it is really a reversion back to older views and practices. In the past, trying young people was no different than trying adults, and no quarter was given based on an offender’s age. In the eighteenth century, children as young as seven were tried and sentenced in ordinary criminal courts.
The New York House of Refuge was established by the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency 1825 and it was the first institution built solely for juvenile inmates. Many states followed suit, building juvenile facilities of their own and demanding that they have both educational and rehabilitative components. The first juvenile justice reformers were sometimes referred to as “child savers.”
In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County Illinois. The court was built around a British legal doctrine that translates to “the state as the parent.” Under this doctrine, it was the state’s responsibility not only to get justice for the victim, but to act in the best interests of the juvenile offender. As such, judges were given a great deal of discretion when sentencing young offenders, discretion that would later be argued unconstitutional by civil libertarians in the 1960s. By 1925, 48 states had established juvenile court systems.
Cause and effect
The idea of a minor’s criminal culpability had shifted, and more people were of the opinion that young people were more easily rehabilitated. This forgiving, utilitarian approach remained unchanged until the mid 1970s, when a rise in violent crime had people demanding that the law crack down and once again deal with juvenile offenders the old-fashioned, punitive way.
The powers that be were happy to oblige, and conservative legislature was back. States began passing laws that made it easier to try juveniles as adults, widened sentencing options and increased the victim’s role in juvenile cases. This can be argued as the end of the United States’ experiment with utilitarian justice, which fell to traditional retributive justice in less than 60 years.
How justice should be administered to adolescent lawbreakers is a subject of much controversy. In the early 1900s, juvenile courts were established in which the state’s responsibility was to act as a guardian to juvenile offenders and to provide them with educational and rehabilitative opportunities. This approach was temporary, and gave way to more punitive measures in the mid 1970s.
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