Juvenile Law Center

Youth in the Justice System: An Overview

For over a century, states have believed that the juvenile justice system was a vehicle to protect the public by providing a system that responds to children who are maturing into adulthood. States recognize that children who commit crimes are different from adults: as a class, they are less blameworthy, and they have a greater capacity for change. To respond to these differences, states have established a separate court system for juveniles, and they have created a separate, youth-based service delivery system that is different than that provided to adults.

The juvenile justice system has grown and changed substantially since 1899, when the nation’s first juvenile court was established in Illinois. Originally, the court process was informal—often nothing more than a conversation between the youth and the judge—and the defendant lacked legal representation. To replace confinement in jails with adults, the early juvenile courts created a probation system and used a separate service-delivery system to provide minors with supervision, guidance, and education. Soon every state and the District of Columbia had followed Illinois’s lead and established a juvenile court. In 1967, in a landmark ruling in the case of In re Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Constitution requires that youth in the juvenile system have many of the same rights guaranteed to adults accused of crimes, including the right to an attorney and the right to confront witnesses against them. Later, the Supreme Court gave youth constitutional rights to have trials that require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; and gave youth a constitutional right against double jeopardy. (Although some states by statute or court ruling give youth a right to a jury trial, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1971 that they have no constitutional right to a jury trial.)

Today’s juvenile justice system still maintains rehabilitation as its primary goal and distinguishes itself from the criminal justice system in important ways. With a few exceptions, in most states delinquency is defined as the commission of a criminal act by a child who was under the age of 18 at the time; most states also allow youth to remain under the supervision of the juvenile court until age 21. In lieu of prison, juvenile court judges draw from a range of legal options to meet both the safety needs of the public and the treatment needs of the youth. Unlike adult criminal proceedings, juvenile court hearings are often closed to members of the public and records are often confidential, protecting children from carrying the burdens of their delinquent activity into adulthood. (However, despite what many people believe, juvenile records in most jurisdictions are not automatically sealed or expunged.)  Educational and therapeutic programming may be provided in the child’s community or the child may be placed out of the home in a residential program. 

There have been a number of changes in recent years. Research by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice led many states and courts to view juvenile crime, and juvenile justice, through a developmental lens. Developmental psychology has been enriched by recent research on the way the adolescent brain, still in development, differs from that of adults. Thus, increasingly, courts consider whether a child is competent to stand trial or whether a child’s confession was voluntary in light of developmental and scientific research about the distinctive characteristics of children and adolescents.  

Juvenile crime has steadily decreased since the early 1990s. However, when juvenile crime rates rose nationwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, states adopted “get- tough” policies for crime, depriving certain youth of the juvenile justice system’s protections. States adopted different ways of moving youth from juvenile to adult criminal court for trial and punishment. In some cases, these new laws saddled children with the most severe sentences, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down state laws imposing the death penalty or life without parole for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment. Many of the new state laws also exposed youth to the dangers and potential abuses attributed to incarceration with adult offenders—much like they’d experienced before the creation of the original juvenile court more than a century ago.  Some states have no lower age for trying children as adults. And many youth receive long, adult sentences that are the equivalent of life without parole.

Because juvenile records are not automatically expunged or sealed, youth often face collateral consequences from involvement in the legal system; they may have difficulty obtaining employment, serving in the military, or obtaining financial aid for college.

Since 1975, Juvenile Law Center has worked to ensure that youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system have robust and meaningful rights, access to education and developmentally appropriate treatment, and opportunities to become healthy and productive adults. Juvenile Law Center has also sought to improve conditions of confinement of youth in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, and has worked to ensure that youth are treated fairly, and have access to counsel, at every stage of court processing.