Youth in the Justice System: An Overview

Since the establishment of the first juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois in 1899, states have recognized that children who commit crimes are different from adults; as a class, they are less blameworthy, and they have a greater capacity for change.  By the mid 1920s, every state in the country had established a separate system of criminal justice designed to acknowledge those differences called the juvenile justice system.

The juvenile justice system has grown and changed substantially since 1899. Originally, the court process was informal—often nothing more than a conversation between the youth and the judge—and the defendant lacked legal representation. Proceedings were conducted behind closed doors with little public or community awareness of how the juvenile court operated or what happened to the children who appeared before it. Rather than confine young people in jails with adults, the early juvenile courts created a probation system and separate rehabilitation and treatment facilities to provide minors with supervision, guidance, and education.

The lack of formal process and constitutional due process in the juvenile justice system – and potential for substantial deprivations of children’s liberty through extensive periods of incarceration even in juvenile facilities — came to light in the landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision In re Gault. In Gault, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Constitution requires that youth charged with delinquency in juvenile court have many of the same due process rights guaranteed to adults accused of crimes, including the right to an attorney and the right to confront witnesses against them. Following Gault, the Supreme Court extended additional constitutional rights to youth, including the right to have the charges against them proven beyond a reasonable doubt and the right against double jeopardy. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that youth were not entitled to jury trials in juvenile court, but several states have judicially or legislatively elected to provide youth a right to jury trial.  

Following this shift to ensure process in juvenile court proceedings, an increase in juvenile crime rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s prompted legislators to adopt “tough on crime” policies, depriving certain youth of the juvenile justice system’s protections. States enacted mechanisms to move youth from juvenile to adult criminal court for trial and punishment. In some cases, these new laws saddled children with the most severe sentences—death and life without the possibility of parole. Many of the new state laws also exposed youth to the dangers and potential abuses attributed to incarceration with adult offenders—much like they had experienced before the creation of the original juvenile court more than a century earlier.

Since the 1990s, juvenile crime rates have steadily decreased, yet the harsh penalties of the 1990s remain in many state laws. With this shift, key distinctive and rehabilitative approaches of the juvenile justice system have been lost to the more severe consequences attendant to criminal justice system involvement.

Today’s juvenile justice system still maintains rehabilitation as its primary goal and distinguishes itself from the criminal justice system in important ways. With 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, although youth may be confined in juvenile correctional facilities that too often resemble adult prisons and jails, routinely imposing correctional practices such as solitary confinement, strip searches, and the use of chemical or mechanical restraints.

Youth are entitled educational programming while incarcerated. 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 treatment program and ordered to attend school on-grounds. 

Unlike adult criminal proceedings, juvenile court hearings are often closed to members of the public and records in some states remain confidential, protecting children from stigma and collateral consequences when their records are publicly available. However, juvenile records have increasingly become more accessible, and in most jurisdictions are not automatically sealed or expunged when the young person becomes an adult. This creates barriers to obtaining employment, serving in the military, or enrolling in higher education programs.   

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 scientific lens. Developmental psychology — which demonstrated youth’s developmental immaturity, particular susceptibility to negative peer influences, and a capacity for change and rehabilitation — is supported by neuroscience, which has shown that key areas of the adolescent brain continue to develop until the mid-twenties. This research has forced constitutional changes in how youth are sentenced when prosecuted in the criminal justice system, as well as required the adoption of new rules and standards for law enforcement interrogation of youth, youth’s competency to stand trial and the reliability of youth confessions, among other things.

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 works towards a world that affirms the unique and developmentally distinct qualities of youth, guarantees fair and equitable treatment, and ensures opportunities for successful adulthood.