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Juvenile Justice System: Where Is It Now?

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From the start of the nineteenth century, youth have been granted the privilege of being tried as children, rather than adults. Before then, any child above the age of seven could be charged as an adult criminal and sent to prison (National Academic Press). According to Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Crime which was published by the National Academic Press, the first juvenile court was founded in 1899 in Chicago. The United States juvenile justice system has been back and forth on giving juveniles rights in court, which has been mostly to the benefit of the juveniles. One of the most pressing issues with the juvenile justice system is how it affects the juveniles rights, which will be examined throughout this paper from a historical perspective. During the Progressive Era of the 1890s, progressives worked to “make American society a better and safer place in which to live” (Library of Congress). With this, juveniles were given more rights to increase their quality of life by giving them more opportunity to have a shorter prison sentence. Despite this improvement for juvenile offenders, their rights soon decreased going into the 1960s, but have greatly evolved today to give youths a lower time sentence they need in order to lead successful lives.

When juvenile centers were first made during the Progressive Era, the public began to believe that youth being charged and tried as adults was unnecessary. Another source, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), supports claims made throughout Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Crime, such as how juvenile cases were often individualized. The CJCJ explains that these first juvenile courts served to give children individualized attention from a judge who had genuine concern for each case. As a result, juveniles had less severe sentences and were let out at an earlier age.

Although juveniles were granted the right to be charged with less harsh sentences as adults, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in re Gault in 1967 changed some juvenile rights by introducing due process (CJCJ). From the Legal Information Institute (LII) at Cornell Law University, due process is defined as government operating within the law and providing fair procedures (LII). From this change, youth were able to have all legal rights offered in a courtroom. According to the Juvenile Law Center (JLC), a source that voices the need for rights and opportunity for youths in the justice system, explains that the outcome of Gault involved youth charged with delinquency having the same rights as adults. Some of these rights were a juvenile’s ability to confront witnesses that testified against them, and to have an attorney (JLC). Before re Gault, juveniles were viewed as a problem needing to be fixed, with the only solution being harsh punishment and unfair treatment. From the American Bar Association, an organization that advances the rule of law across the US, similar acts of trying to help juveniles are researched. In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act helped to remove juveniles from adult prisons they were placed in after being tried (Blitzman). About ten years after this ruling, juvenile crime increased and youth rights of being charged as a juvenile were lost. The process of the new “tough on crime” resulted in policies that gave harsher punishments to juveniles who were convicted. They were more likely to be sent into adult court, and sentenced into prison with adults, causing physical abuse and endangerment when incarcerated.

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Today, the United States uses the age of eighteen to regulate who does and doesn’t go to juvenile courts. According to the JLC, youth are most often under juvenile system laws until the age of twenty-one. The result of this is youth being able to stay safer and away from the realities of incarceration with adults. The National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization to advance the effectiveness of state legislatures, investigates and finds contradictory evidence to the JLC. According to Anne Teigen, many states draw the line for juveniles at seventeen, but five states choose a year earlier, the age of sixteen (NCSL). In states such as Wisconsin and Georgia, youth who haven’t reached the age of eighteen can be put into adult court and incarcerated with adults as well. With this, it is evident that the juveniles in those five states are not receiving the benefits other juveniles are seeing in the remaining forty-five states. The hundreds of thousands of juveniles who are convicted as adults at the age of sixteen are becoming victims of physical abuse and seeing loss of life opportunity sooner and more frequently than youths in the other forty-five states.

While the U.S. does have a functioning juvenile system and has evolved from the past, they could follow in the steps of foreign countries to reduce the number of juvenile arrests. The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN), an organization that advocates for a fairer U.S. juvenile justice system, discusses the New Zealand juvenile system. In an executive summary titled “New Zealand’s Youth Justice Transformation: Lessons for the United States”, New Zealand was able to enforce a law stating that police could not arrest juveniles without a warrant. Minor incidents are handled by front-line police, and as a result, the numbers of arrest only involved twelve percent of all juvenile offenders (Goemann). For a more effective way to handle the juveniles in the future, the United States can alter their juvenile system to reduce the number of juveniles incarcerated in all states, keeping vulnerable youths out of potentially being imprisoned with adults. Alongside the New Zealand juvenile justice system being potentially influential for the United States, the Austrian juvenile system could help as well. For juveniles in Austria, their sentences are half of the adults, which causes them to serve time for the crime they committed, but they are able to learn from their bad decisions in less time (Winterdyk). Similar to the New Zealand juvenile system, Austria gives youth additional help in court when they are on trial. Concluding, that if the United States is willing to change their ways of the juvenile system, the youth in the U.S. can benefit from these same advantages such as a lessened time sentence given to those in Austria and New Zealand.

In conclusion, the United States juvenile justice history has changed to accommodate different circumstances including higher crime rates, youth needs, etc. The age limit of eighteen and watch until age twenty-one is beneficial to the youth of the United States, and are helping them to keep chances of growing up to be successful adults. Despite the flaws in the past about juvenile rights and law changes, the juvenile system within the United States is sufficient in reaching its goals compared to thirty or forty years ago.


  1. Blitzman, Jay D. ‘Are we criminalizing adolescence?’ GP Solo, Sept.-Oct. 2015, p. 72. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 29 Jan. 2020.
  2. “Due Process.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, Accessed 3 February 2020.
  3. Goemann, Melissa. New Zealand’s Youth Justice Transformation: Lessons for the United States 2018. Washington, D.C.: The National Juvenile Justice Network, 2018.’s%20Youth%20Justice%20Transformation%20Executive%20Summary%20Final%204.25.18.pdf. Accessed 17 January 2020.
  4. “Juvenile Justice History – Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.” – Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Accessed 15 January 2020
  5. “Progressive Era to New Era – American Memory Timeline- Classroom Presentation: Teacher Resources.” Library of Congress, Accessed 3 February 2020.
  6. “Read ‘Juvenile Crime, Juvenile Justice’ at” National Academies Press: OpenBook, Accessed 13 January 2020.
  7. Teigen, Anne, and Karen McInnes. Juvenile Age of Jurisdiction and Transfer to Adult Court Laws, Accessed 13 January 2020.
  8. Winterdyk, John A. Juvenile Justice: International Perspectives, Models, and Trends . CRC Press , 2014. Accessed 21 January 2020.
  9. “Youth in the Justice System: An Overview.” Juvenile Law Center, Accessed 13 January 2020. – source for Marina to use for percentages of minorities

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