According to Hart Hastings in his distinguished book ‘Preventive treatment of neglected children’, the history of juvenile institutions dates back to 1898 when Illinois Juvenile Court Act was enacted. He further argued that its history was an evolutionary one that was characterized by numerous issues. (Hart H, 1971). A major concern had been that of dependent yet delinquent children as there were conflicting issues as to how they were to be addressed. In most incidences, children especially boys would be confined together with adult criminals. Interested parties like women started to advocate for the need to treat or rather handle children differently from adults. In response, to their demands, the ‘Illinois State Conference of Charities and Correction’ took their time to address the issue. A selected committee was given the responsibility of ensuring that a comprehensive but efficient legislation was arrived at so that the matter was resolved. The main objective guiding the selected committee was the establishment of a legislation that would be best for the young members in the society. The interest of the children had to be addressed first. This paper will focus on the history of juvenile institutions right from their origin in Illinois and the changes that have seen them what they are today. It will also highlight important aspects regarding the juvenile institutions.
In creating a juvenile court a ‘parental’ aspect was to be incorporated when punishing the young in the society such that punishment awarded would be equivalent or rather should have equal weight with what a parent was likely to offer. There were two major issues or principles by which the juvenile court was established. The child’s value was of much essence and the issue of retributive justice was reconsidered. Children guilty of crimes they were suspected to commit were viewed as delinquents who were not necessarily criminals. (Sanford J. Fox). No penalties were to be placed on delinquent children. The act was also more focused on ensuring that offenders reformed from their criminal activities to something positive in the society. Before the Illinois Juvenile act children aged 7 years and above were treated like adults in as far as the criminal justice system as concerned.
Hart noted that there were unique features in juvenile courts. A high proportion or percentage of the total states in the US which had laws to govern the running of juvenile courts had laws that clearly stipulated how dependent children and delinquents were to be handled. Some states for instance New York only had laws to govern how delinquents’ children would also not be handled in police and justice courts but were to be handled by the probate courts as well as the circuit and district courts. (Hart H, 1971).
The Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899 clearly distinguished or rather drew a line as to how neglected and delinquent juveniles were to be handled. It was also to ensure or rather create a separate court system that would address the issue of children and delinquency as opposed to crime and adults. Another feature unique to the juvenile courts was the issue of probation officers. These officers were expected to be people of good character who would represent the children’s interests and aid in the investigations as the court would require. (Hart H, 1971). The officer was also expected to handle the child during and after the trial as the court would stipulate. Caution was however be taken in selecting the probation officer as he/she would be of a significant effect in as far as the verdict was concerned.
It was also established that the most appropriate way of assisting the young delinquents would be through the use of family homes. In cases or instances where it would be applicable ‘homes’ were the best environments to reform the young offenders. The probation officer had the duty to ensure that improper or rather ‘unfit homes’ were reformed to make them more accommodative for the children. The probation officer was expected to visit the delinquent child’s home especially if the parents could be termed as ‘unfit’ for the child. If need arose the child would be taken by the court and another home would be secured for him/her. (Hart H, 1971).
The judge had the mandate to investigate the running of children institutions. The judge would decide if any child – helping institution was effective enough to accommodate a child or not. The juvenile court was to offer competent and experienced authority to determine agencies that best suited the specific needs or requirements of a child. This way competitiveness was boosted among the children based institutions enabling them to be more effective and responsible. (Hart H, 1971). This was due to the notion that only the competent would have an inflow of children. The juvenile courts would handle dependent children as it was not confined to the delinquents. The children’s privacy was ensured such that other children as well as other people in the court rooms would not hear what was going on. The media was also discouraged from airing court related issues that dealt with children. (Hart H, 1971).
According to the find law website, the definition of a juvenile varies across varying states in the US but it ranges from 19 to 16 years and below. Children below 6 or 7 years are however considered as without the criminal intent and can therefore not be aligned in courts for misconduct. (FindLaw, 2008). The argument here is that they are incapacitated to distinguish between right or wrong. The age of the offender could be at the time they are apprehended or at the time they commit the said crimes. It was estimated that for the period between 1880 and 1920 there were various changes in the US. With increased immigration came urbanization which is associated with numerous social evils. The crime rates by the young increased significantly. (FindLaw, 2008)
By the 1980’s it was clear that the reform or rather rehabilitative approach was not effective. As more and more youthful offenders engaged in more violent crimes it became necessary to incorporate other punitive measures as some were beyond reform. States in the US saw if important to impose harsher punishment measures. Laws adopted allowed a significant proportion of young offenders to be taken to the adult courts.
According to the 1999 National Report Series on Juvenile Justice, movements had started campaigning for the separation between the young offenders and the adult offenders as early as 1825. The first juvenile court which was at the Cook County in Illinois and it was under the British or English law. It was based on the ‘parens patriae’ which saw the state take the role of a parent in instilling discipline to the young. After the introduction of the first juvenile county most state introduced such institutions within their jurisdiction and as at 1910 only two states did not have juvenile courts in operation. The juvenile courts differed from the adult courts in the sense that they selected the people they were to deal with or rather their target population and they adopted a less formal approach in their proceedings. The main focus was on the offenders rather than the offences committed. (National Report Series, 1999). Judges in the juvenile courts were limited to warning and probation verdicts. As early as 1950-1960s the effectiveness of rehabilitation objectives of the juvenile systems became questionable. This was attributed to the intensified crime rate by young offenders. The rehabilitation facilities were viewed as warehouses that only worked as stores to confine the young people at no advantage. These concerns were responded to effectively when the US Supreme Court allowed the juvenile courts to exercise their powers in a formal way more so like the adult criminal courts operated. Young offenders could get notices summoning them in courts regarding crimes they had committed. (National Report Series, 1999).
In 1968, the congress passed the ‘Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act’ which would allow some young offenders to be handled without or outside the court system. This act was aimed at encouraging the role of the community in fighting against juvenile delinquency. It was replaced by the Juvenile and Delinquency prevention Act of 1974. On establishing that the crime rates by juveniles had increased to uncontrollable levels the congress advocated for the introduction of quality preventive programs. It recommended the collaborative efforts between the juveniles, their families, local public agencies as well as community based organization to reduce delinquency in the society. It also advocated for the introduction of programs that would involve a sense of accountability on the juvenile offenders. Such programs would range from community services as well as imposing penalties or making restrictions.
In 1980, the congress advocated for the separation of the juvenile offenders from the adult offenders in terms of the facilities that they had been locked in. During this period the public had a feeling that the juvenile system was too lenient with the increasing numbers of juvenile offenders who were also engaged in more and more serious crimes. These concerns led to the introduction of more punitive laws across the states in the US. In some instances juveniles were to be taken to adult criminal courts. Most states made it easier to transfer juvenile offenders to the adult criminal courts. The confidentiality privilege that had been introduced at the inception of juvenile courts was also erased. Both the criminal as well as the juvenile courts were given at their disposal a wider range or scope with regards to their sentencing options. These changes saw the treatment of juvenile offenders as criminals contrary to the stipulation of the Illinois juvenile court act. (National Report Series, 1999).
The 1980-90’s saw significant reforms or rather changes in as far as the history of juvenile institutions is concerned. It is this period that saw juvenile accountable for their behavior, the overemphasis on the offender at the expense of the society and the victims was to be a thing of the past. (National Report Series, 1999). Here, the victims, offenders as well as the community had their interests addressed. Young offenders would now be accountable for their deeds and this was expected to ensure a deterrence effect thus making the communities safer.
The 1967 in the Gault ruling by the Supreme Court was of a very significant impact in the history of juvenile justice history. It emphasized on the need to respect the constitutional rights of the juvenile offenders. The juvenile had a right to an attorney as well as other procedural protections that were enjoyed by adults. The Supreme Court on seriously examining a case involving Gerald Gault a boy aged 15 charged on allegations of making an indecent call that translated to be a disruption of peace made the said conclusions. (National Report Series, 1999). Juveniles would have a right to a notice regarding their charges, a right to be confronted or cross examined in a court of law as well as a right to have copies of the legal proceedings regarding their cases. They were to get a statement clearly indicating the facts related to their cases as well as the reasons behind their being detained. (Donald J et al, 2005)
Gault was denied the chance to meet the accused and there was barely a witness to testify against him but all in all he was to be detained until he was above the ‘juvenile age’ bracket. The in re Gault also allowed juveniles the right against self incrimination and it aimed at ensuring that fairness in as far as trials were concerned was observed not just for the adults but also for the juveniles. (Byrgen F.,1995)
Various states reacted differently when addressing the issue of increased juvenile crimes. In his article ‘Balanced and Restorative Justice in Illinois’, Dighton presented the juvenile justice reform act of 1998. The reform was geared at striking a balance between the interest of victims as well as those of the convicted offenders. This way the juvenile system would incorporate punitive measures on top of the reform objectives that it initially embraced. (Dighton D, 2008). This arrangement would incorporate three most important aspects in any criminal justice system. The rights needs of the victims and the suspect as well as the safety of the society would be ensured. Focus would now be changed from the ancient tradition where the juveniles were seen as minors who were immature and could not be held accountable for their actions. Rehabilitation was sought to help salvage them from ending up in criminality in their old age. (Dighton D, 2008).
A legislative committee was set in 1994 with the aim of making recommendations on how the juvenile system was to be reformed as it was obvious the ancient Illinois one was ineffective. (Senate Bill 363). Young offenders would now be held accountable for their action and hence punished accordingly. This was however not without criticism from those who saw the need to treat the young differently from the adults. The period of time that young offenders were to spend in detention or in custody would be increased and so would their fingerprinting. A state wide database was also recommended so that it would be easier to tract the young offenders across the state. (Dighton D, 2008).
In their book ‘The changing Borders of Juvenile Justice’, Fagon and Zimning noted how the supreme court of the US in 1967 through the Gault decision gave the juvenile courts the constitutional recognition to conduct penal sanctions. Juveniles were entitled similar procedural protections like adults had. The recognition of the penal nature of the juvenile courts by the Supreme Court was an important event in as far as the history of juvenile institutions is concerned. However the Supreme Court was for the opinion that juveniles were not to be trusted with the privileges and responsibilities that adults had and consequently their irresponsibility would not to be morally reprehensible like that of adults. (Fagan J and Zimring F, 2000).
As Fagan and Zimring noted, there were instances where juveniles would be transferred to adult criminal courts. There were various mechanisms of transfer by which the law allowed such transfers. A juvenile court judge could ‘waiver’ the court’s jurisdiction over a minor. Certain legislations provided for the concurrent jurisdiction in both the juvenile as well as the criminal courts for certain charges. In determining whether a case would be heard in a juvenile or in a criminal court certain standards were applied and they varied across the varying states. The rate of transfer from juvenile to adult criminal courts also varied across the varying states but was dependent on the mechanisms used or applied. In evaluating the consequences of transferring juveniles to criminal courts various aspects were to be put into consideration. For instance one would establish if there were any special provisions for the juveniles in question. (Fagan J and Zimring F, 2000).
According to the Lawyershop.com website the juvenile justice system in America aims at ensuring that America is safe and it rehabilitates the young offenders. This is hampered by inadequate funding to enable them realize its objectives. Inadequate rehabilitation precipitates higher rates of recidivism and thus the need to make the various institutions responsible effective and efficient. This site also highlights the importance of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974 which required that states that held minors in adult facilities to remove them in a period of less than two years. Through this act various would get grants in accordance to their respective youth populations. (Elrod P and Ryder S 1999). There was also the creation of offices to handle the youth and crime which was known as the Office of Juvenile Justice and delinquency Prevention. In 1977 there was the development of programs to deal with the disabled children in the Juvenile justice system and it aimed at enabling them in learning. In 1984 there was the introduction of a program that would deal with the exploited or abused children. During the same year there was the introduction of another program that stressed on the importance of family in as far as youth and crime was concerned. Six years later a program was started to educate or rather train on child abuse with the aim of guiding the prosecutors as well as other relevant judicial personnel. In 1992 there was the introduction of the juvenile boot camp which aimed at changing the lifestyles of delinquent children by instilling good manners and discipline. (Einstein Law, 2008).
Overtime various programs have been introduced especially geared towards the promotion of safety with schools. Various campaigns against guns and drugs have also been going on and so has the transfer of juveniles to adult criminal courts. Major challenges facing the juvenile justice systems today include the inadequate financing as well as conflicts or disagreements in regard to some principles. (Einstein Law, 2008). These hamper the effectiveness of the system especially on the implementation of certain programs. Issues that continue mixed reactions in the system include the following: the appropriate age where children acquire the criminal intent to distinguish wrong from right, should death penalty be applied to juveniles, should juveniles be handled in adult criminal courts depending on the crimes they are guilty of, should they be treated with special provisions for instance should they be given increased confidentiality and the role played by adults and guardians in precipitating crime among the young or to what extent they should be blamed and if so how should they be treated. (Einstein Law, 2008).
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Jeffrey Fagan, and Franklin E. Zimring. 2000. The Changing Borders of Juvenile Justice:
Transfer of Adolescents to the Criminal Court. University of Chicago Press
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