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The United States Juvenile Justice System Essay

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Updated: May 1st, 2021

Until the end of the 19th century, many courts in America were putting juveniles on trial whereby they could go through similar procedures as adults. However, countries such as England influenced reforms made in the U.S. juvenile justice system. In particular, following the 17th-century campaign that sought to force courts to treat juveniles differently due to the moral and cognitive capability of going through the prevailing justice framework, the U.S. has recorded significant changes in its juvenile system in the last two centuries. In addition to examining this evolution process, this paper identifies major turning points that have contributed significantly to the status of the present-day American juvenile justice framework.

Evolution in the Last 200 Years

Young offenders in the 17th-century U.S. were being subjected to the same harsh conditions as their adult counterparts. However, in the mid-1800s, various initiatives were introduced, for instance, houses of refuge, whose agendas included addressing problems encountered by juvenile offenders in various American courts (Troutman, 2018). During the same period, this country recorded new developments that involved the establishment of cottage organizations, out-of-home appointments, and trials, thanks to the input of transformative individuals who sought to see youthful male and female criminals handled with dignity (Leve, Chamberlain, & Kim, 2015).

As a result, efforts to introduce institutions that dealt with youthful offenders led to the establishment of the first-ever American juvenile judicial structure based in Cook County, Illinois, before the close of the 17th century.

This court system was founded on the principle of the “State as Parent”, which acknowledged the need for fair treatment of youthful criminals. This development was replicated in other regions in the U.S. As a result, the presence of legal agencies that served the needs of youthful criminals informed the decision to have an autonomous juvenile justice system in the U.S. Since the 1600s up to the period before the mid-1900s, these justice frameworks carried out their mandates of helping youths to secure justice. Nevertheless, major turning points were observed that led to the continuous refining of the American juvenile justice system.

Key Turning Points

Before 1950, judges were free to handle any particular cases as they wished. However, in the period between 1950 and 1960, American society raised an alarm following the observed ineffectiveness of the existing juvenile justice structure. In particular, high levels of discrimination and differences in the manner of handling young offenders’ matters were witnessed because of the significant freedom accorded to judges. Youthful criminals who had committed analogous offenses could get dissimilar judgments.

This situation led to a major turning point. Specifically, the period beginning from the 1960s was characterized by the Supreme Court’s decision to implement the concept of due process defense (Benekos, Merlo, & Puzzanchera, 2013). In this case, juveniles could now enjoy the right to guidance. In addition, as Dierkhising et al. (2013) reveal, issues related to young offenders being taken to legal chambers designed for adults or jailing them for extended times were subjected to official hearings.

The period of the 1980s was marked by high rates of youthful offenders and increased compassion levels whereby such criminals would be arrested and released without stern penalties (Abrams, 2013). As a result, during this time, the U.S. had to initiate another turning point by authorizing the implementation of strict policies, including unquestioned transfer to adult legal chambers, especially when a young offender was found to have committed high-level offenses. This trend continued until the 1990s. Many young people had been confined in jails. As a result, due to public outcry, the end of the 1990s until today saw a significant decrease in the number of juvenile arrests.


The present-day American juvenile justice framework has been realized through changes made to previous systems. Punitive measures instituted in the 1980s led to a public outcry to have young offenders released, hence compromising the operations of the American juvenile court system. Up to date, the rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S. continues to increase because of this decision made in the 1970s.


Abrams, L. S. (2013). Juvenile justice at a crossroads: Science, evidence, and twenty-first-century reform. Social Service Review, 87(4), 725-752.

Benekos, P. J., Merlo, A. V., & Puzzanchera, C. M. (2013). In defense of children and youth: Reforming juvenile justice policies. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 15(2), 125-143.

Dierkhising, C. B., Ko, S. J., Woods-Jaeger, B., Briggs, E. C., Lee, R., & Pynoos, R. (2013). Trauma histories among justice-involved youth: Findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4, 1-12.

Leve, L., Chamberlain, P., & Kim, H. (2015). Risks, outcomes, and evidence-based interventions for girls in the US juvenile justice system. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review, 18(3), 252-279.

Troutman, B. (2018). A more just system of juvenile justice: Creating a new standard of accountability for juveniles in Illinois. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 108(1), 197-221.

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