Juvenile Court

The first official juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. By 1920, juvenile courts existed in almost every major city in the United States. Juvenile courts provided separate proceedings and facilities for criminal, neglected, and dependent youths under eighteen, and focused on prevention, diagnosis, and rehabilitation. The court originated as part of a larger movement in the nineteenth century to segregate children from the adult criminal system. Urban reformers had worried that the poor living conditions in many American industrial cities were causing deviant behavior. They advocated separate institutions and organizations that would remove troubled youths from bad environments and train them to become productive citizens. By the late nineteenth century, however, many Progressive reformers were critical of these earlier methods. Encouraged by new psychological and sociological studies, reformers promoted earlier intervention in children's lives. Through the juvenile court, reformers believed court authorities could alter bad behavior by taking into account each child's individual experiences. Since its inception, the juvenile court has served as both a humanitarian enterprise and a tool for social control.

Broadly conceived, juvenile courts intervened in the lives of children and their families. Courts adopted the medieval English doctrine of parens patriae, in which the state acted as parent in cases when the child's welfare was threatened. Judges conducted cases informally, as civil rather than criminal proceedings, and had a great deal of discretion to act in the child's best interests. Typically, judges appointed probation officers to investigate the child's family, living conditions, and health, and to determine if the child needed to appear in court or to be referred to social services. Children awaiting hearings often were placed in detention centers. There, the child would be segregated according to his age, sex, and medical condition, and evaluated. When the case came to court, the judge could use all the information gathered up to that point, as well as his own informal interactions with the child and the parents, to render his decision. Usually, judges ruled in favor of probation. However, if a case was serious and the judge could find no other recourse, the child could be committed to a state reformatory.

Although many people heralded the juvenile court as a humanitarian achievement, others were more critical. Early critics complained that juvenile courts did not adequately implement their intended procedures and programs. Courts often were overwhelmed with their caseloads, and were unable to provide sufficient attention to the children in their custody. In many instances, courts relied on overworked volunteers as probation officers, and continued to use jails and punitive measures rather than rehabilitative treatments.

Others criticized juvenile courts for wielding too much power over children and parents. Children were labeled delinquent not only for criminal offenses, but also for statutory offenses and for being dependents. Juvenile courts had no juries, no rules of evidence or of witnesses, and no due process. Judges also discouraged defendants from seeking attorneys. This meant judges commanded a disproportionate amount of discretion. Meanwhile, as numerous juvenile court scholars have noted, courts interfered with the authority of parents, and were frequently the location of class and cultural conflicts between court officials and families. Although in many instances parents used juvenile courts to assert their own authority over their children, some scholars have suggested that the Progressive juvenile court served as a mechanism of social control over both parents and children, and over the lower classes, minorities, and immigrants.

The 1960s brought about the most significant changes to the juvenile court since the beginning of the century. Civil libertarians argued that juvenile courts often discriminated against youths according to class, race, and ethnicity through discretionary rulings and institutional commitments. Moreover, they contended that youths faced punitive incarceration similar to adult offenders without the same constitutional rights in the courtroom. Within a ten-year period, the Supreme Court handed down five major decisions–most famous of these was IN RE GAULT (1967)–which, together, restructured the juvenile court. These rulings provided greater due process and formalized proceedings, and narrowed judicial discretion. At the same time, many states legislated the removal of status offenders from the courts, mandated attorney involvement, modeled juvenile court proceedings after criminal courts, and placed more juvenile offenders in noninstitutional facilities. Ironically, since the late 1970s, as juvenile courts became more oriented towards CHILDREN'S RIGHTS, their proceedings also became more criminalized. Americans increasingly expressed greater concern about youth violence, and juvenile courts responded with tougher procedures and by trying more adolescents as adults.

The 1899 Chicago juvenile court has been influential internationally. Many industrialized and some developing countries have used the American juvenile court model as the basis for their own courts, incorporating judicial discretion and a social welfare approach. While each country's juvenile court is unique to that nation's culture, they all struggle with many of the same dilemmas regarding children's rights, racial and ethnic discrepancies, and rehabilitative versus punitive methods of controlling delinquency.

See also: Delinquency; Juvenile Justice.


Platt, Anthony M. 1969. The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rosenheim, Margaret K., et al., eds. 2002. A Century of Juvenile Justice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ryerson, Ellen. 1978. The Best-Laid Plans: America's Juvenile Court Experiment. New York: Hill and Wang.

Schlossman, Steven L. 1977. Love and the American Delinquent: The Theory and Practice of "Progressive" Juvenile Justice, 1825–1920. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schneider, Eric C. 1992. In the Web of Class: Delinquents and Reformers in Boston, 1810s–1930s. New York: New York University Press.