Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice

Before there was an actual Juvenile Justice system, an English lawyer by the name of William Blackstone published Commentaries on the Laws of England, in which he identifies people who were incapable of committing crimes. One of the groups were identified as infants or those too young to fully understand their actions. By the ideals of Blackstone, children under the age of seven could not be guilty of a felony – a serious crime such as kidnapping or murder. However, children over the age of fourteen were able to be charged and punished as adults for the crimes they were found guilty of. This ideal left a grey area, between the ages of seven and fourteen, in a child was presumed to be incapable, yet if it appeared the child understood the difference between right and wrong they could be convicted and suffer the consequences of the crime, including death for capital crimes. (“The History of JUVENILE JUSTICE PART 1| ABA Division for Public Education”)

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Changes in the Juvenile Justice System began in the nineteenth century when social reformers began to create special facilities for troubled juveniles. In large cities, such as New York, and Chicago, it seemed especially important to protect and separate the youth from adult offenders. Social reformers also focused on rehabilitation, in order to help the juvenile offenders, avoid a future life of crime. The first juvenile court was established in Cook County Illinois and within the next quarter century most states had followed suit establishing their own juvenile court system. These early courts shared the same ideals with the social reformers, to rehabilitate juvenile offenders rather than punish them. Parens patriae or parent of the country which gave the court’s power to act a juvenile’s guardian. In this role, the courts attempted to act in the best interest of the offender and used an informal, non-adversarial, a flexible approach to cases. Juvenile cases were seen as non criminal and it was the courts goal to guide the offender toward life as a law-abiding adult. Under certain circumstances. The juveniles were removed from their homes and placed in reformatories as part of their rehabilitation. (“The History of JUVENILE JUSTICE PART 1| ABA Division for Public Education”)

The United States Supreme Court would hear various cases that would continue to change the juvenile justice system. In Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966), Morris Kent admitted to robbing and raping a woman at the age of sixteen. His mother obtained a lawyer, who had a psychiatric evaluation performed on Kent, which ultimately placed him in a psychiatric hospital. Kent was tried as an adult after the court relinquished its power of the case to criminal court. In an attempt to prevent the waiver, the lawyer stated that if Kent were given the proper treatment he could be rehabilitated. Foregoing a hearing, or a full investigation, the courts neglected to respond to the motions, the case was waived to criminal court in which Kent was sentenced to serve 30-90 years in prison. The Supreme Court determined a sufficient investigation was not done prior to the waiver. Kent did not receive a hearing, was not given access to counsel, or access to his record. The Court remanded the case to district court but because Kent was already twenty-one, the court no longer had jurisdiction. The Supreme Court ordered the conviction be vacated if the waiver was improper and sustained if proper. (Kent v. United States) Additionally, In re Gault 387 U.S. (1987) a 15 year old Gerald Gault was sentenced to six years’ incarceration for making a lewd phone call, where an adult offender would have been sentenced to a fifty dollar fine and two months imprisonment. (“Facts and Case Summary – In re Gault”) The juvenile, Gault was not afforded the same due process as an adult offender, such as the right to face his accuser, notice of the charges against them, or the right to counsel. In these two landmark cases, it was determined by the Supreme Court that under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court, offenders deserved the same amount of due process as their adult counterparts.

As time continued, the juvenile court system continued to make steps in making it procedures more like criminal courts. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970), a twelve-year-old boy, Samuel Winship had been arrested and charged for breaking into a woman’s locker and stealing $112 from her purse. The Family Court found Winship guilty based on the preponderance of evidence or available evidence making it more likely than not that the person had committed a crime. In a similar situation, an adult offender’s guilt would be based on the court proving guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher standard, meaning the available evidence leaves one firmly convinced of guilt. In a 5-3 decision, The Supreme Court found that when establishing guilt of criminal charges, the reasonable-doubt standard must be applied to both juveniles and adults. As long as incarceration was a possible sentence, the use of different burdens of proof would not suffice based upon age variations. (In re Winship) Another possible sentence for juvenile offenders was the death penalty. That was until the case of Roper v. Simmons in 2005 in which the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for any crime committed under the age of eighteen. In Roper v. Simmons 543 U.S. 551 (2005), Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death in 1993, at the age of 17. After many appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that executing the mentally ill, was in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendment, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to reconsider the Simmons case. The Missouri Court cited laws passing since 1989, limiting the scope of the death penalty towards children, showing the national opinion had changed and the majority of Americans were against executing children. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the standards of decency had evolved and executing minors was considered cruel and unusual, therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. (Roper v. Simmons)

Although the death penalty has been taken off of the table for non-homicidal crimes, the United States still sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole. This has been the subject of controversy for such organizations as the ACLU, who continue to present that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment. Currently twenty nine states have laws that state juveniles that have been convicted of murder cannot be subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. (“End Juvenile Life Without Parole”) In Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), two separate cases of fourteen year old convicted of capital murder were presented to the court stating the mandatory life sentences were a violation of the eighth amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the eighth amendment forbid the imposition of a life sentence without parole. Yet in this Supreme Court ruling, judges are given the discretion to sentence a minor to life in prison depending upon the circumstance and an individualized approach to each case. (Miller v. Alabama)

As the states continue to decide on whether or not juveniles are subject to the death penalty, they also individually have acceptable methods of serving justice to juvenile offenders. Usually called disposition orders, juvenile courts have a wide range of options of sentencing. These fall into two categories: incarceration and non incarceration. Juveniles can be incarcerated but the methods are very different from those of involving adult offenders. This includes house arrest or home confinement, in which the juvenile is ordered to remain at home except to attend school and/or work. The court can also require that they be placed with someone other than a parent or guardian which can be with a relative or in a group home. The minor can also be sent to a Juvenile Detention Facility which is designed for short-term stays. For longer-term stays, juveniles can be sent to secured facilities or camps for months or years. In some cases, juveniles are sent to adult facilities such as county jails or state prisons. In some cases, a juvenile can be sentenced to a juvenile facility and then upon coming of the age of majority they can be sent to adult jails in what is called a blended sentence. There are also non-incarceration options for juveniles in which judges have a broad discretion to decide a sentence or rehabilitation program to suit the minor. This can include something as simple as a verbal warning or a fine in which the minor may be required to pay to the government or as compensation to the victim. This can also include counseling in which the juvenile is required to attend as part of a disposition order and community service in which they must work a certain number of hours in service to a local community. Juveniles may also be required to wear a wrist or ankle bracelet that verifies their location at all times. Judges often order juveniles to enter probation in which the minors freedom is limited and their activities are restricted. When placed upon probation, it can include community service, attendance at a certain school, counseling, curfews, and orders that the juvenile not associate with certain individuals such as gang members. They may also have to attend special day treatment programs that provide additional monitoring and educational services. (Michon, 2014)

The juvenile justice system has come a long way from where it first started. from not holding minors accountable for their actions at all, to deciphering the difference between minors and adults, the juvenile justice system has made progress yet it still has much progress to make. Many things will continue to influence the juvenile justice system as much as it does the criminal justice system. What is now socially acceptable may not be socially acceptable in the future and therefore it will guide the direction in which the justice system is headed. The juvenile justice system has changed from one that was based on punishment to one that is currently based on rehabilitation and what the different avenues such as probation and educational services it should continue to build upon rehabilitation and helping the youth instead of hurting them and their futures.

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Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice. (2019, Jul 03). Retrieved December 9, 2022 , from

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