Criminology Juvenile Courts
Kelly Orts, David Myers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0301


The juvenile court has moved through phases and evolved in numerous ways since originating in 1899. During the Progressive Era, the juvenile court was seen as a social welfare reform and began to establish youth institutions. The due process revolution followed, after a series of significant case decisions established due process rights and equal projection to children. The “Get Tough” phase of the juvenile justice system in the 1980s and 1990s targeted punitive sentencing, rather than rehabilitative sentencing. More recently, the juvenile court evolved to recognize the neurological and developmental differences between youth and adults. This rationale supports the need for a separate court from the adult criminal system, with the goal of early diversion and treatment for youth. Children are more amendable to treatment and rehabilitation, and they should be considered less responsible and less culpable as compared to adults. Children who commit crimes typically will be treated less punitively than adults who commit the same crime. Modern juvenile courts generally seek to address the specific needs of youth in a developmentally appropriate manner, while also maintaining public safety. Adolescence in itself exemplifies a phase of impulsivity, vulnerability, risky behavior, and the testing of boundaries. These aspects of adolescence are widely accepted today and better understood due to neuroscientific research on adolescent development. The multiple stages of the juvenile justice process involve a variety of decision-makers who have the power and discretion to determine a child’s future. The courtroom workgroup makes decisions to divert youth from the system, incarcerate juveniles in a placement facility, or mandate treatment programs. Other systems, such as child welfare, schools, families, and health, can be involved in the juvenile court process as well. In recent decades, juvenile courts have moved away from popular punitive approaches of the latter 20th century and toward more evidence-based rehabilitative strategies. Contemporary juvenile courts seek to serve the best interests of children and youth, but also the community and victims. Moreover, juvenile court jurisdiction, based on minimum and maximum ages and definitions of criminal responsibility, varies across states. Similarly, juvenile transfer laws vary from state to state, and jurisdictional boundaries are currently a popular area of reform. In the aftermath of decreasing juvenile crime rates, many states are considering systemic reforms to remove youth from adult prisons, minimize youth confinement, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing.

History of the Juvenile Court

In 1899, Cook County, Illinois, established the first juvenile court, intending that it would act “in place of the parents,” provide rehabilitation and protective supervision, and consider the use of social services as an alternative to punishment. More than a half-century later, as Feld 1993 discusses, the US Supreme Court made various decisions to formalize and standardize juvenile courts. Liles and Moak 2015 provides a review of state law changes since Miller v. Alabama (2012, cited under Supreme Court and Other Major Cases). The 1980s and 1990s saw an increase in juvenile crime rates and a youth violence epidemic, along with corresponding increases in punitive justice system responses, including mandatory sentencing and transferring more youth to adult court. Howell, et al. 2012 presents an overview of the impact of these changes on the older adolescent population, with a consideration of how these youth have been handled in the adult criminal justice system. Through the various eras of juvenile justice, Feld 2017 examines how the juvenile court has responded to the politics and societal values of its time. Mallett 2018 also provides an overview of the juvenile justice eras, with a specific focus on how minority youth have been impacted by the juvenile court.

  • Feld, B. C. 1993. Juvenile (in)justice and the criminal court alternative. Crime & Delinquency 39.4: 403–424.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128793039004001

    Following the decision of In re Gault (1967, cited under Supreme Court and Other Major Cases), the juvenile court’s purpose and procedure shifted to include procedural safeguards, somewhat similar to those in adult court. Feld provides an in-depth history of the juvenile court, relevant Supreme Court decisions, trends in diversion efforts and transfer laws, and future reform options. He emphasizes rethinking the meaning of “childhood” and the purpose of the juvenile court in responding to delinquency.

  • Feld, B. C. 2017. The evolution of the juvenile court: Race, politics, and the criminalizing of juvenile justice. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1pwtbmh

    Through an in-depth analysis of over a hundred years of juvenile court history, Feld explains how social constructs have shaped the juvenile justice system. Through the Progressive Era, Due Process Era, Get Tough Era, and contemporary Kids Are Different Era, the meaning, purpose, and practice of the juvenile court has responded to the social and political ideologies of the times.

  • Howell, J. C., B. C. Feld, and D. P. Mears. 2012. Young offenders and an effective justice system response: What happens, what should happen, and what we need to know. In From juvenile delinquency to adult crime: Criminal careers, justice policy and prevention. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199828166.003.0008

    The authors discuss the older adolescent population in the juvenile and adult justice systems. A summary regarding the current process, impact, and research for youth handled in the criminal justice system educates readers about the need to focus on this population’s specific risks and needs. Their recommendations on handling this population include evidence-based policies, competency assessments, individualized case management, and improving future behavior.

  • Liles, A., and S. C. Moak. 2015. Changing juvenile justice policy in response to the U.S. Supreme Court: Implementing Miller v. Alabama. Youth Justice 15.1: 76–92.

    DOI: 10.1177/1473225414529201

    In recent years, many states have been restructuring their sentencing procedures to address juvenile offenders convicted of homicidal offenses. Through a review of state laws pre– and post–Miller v. Alabama (2012, cited under Supreme Court and Other Major Cases), Lilies and Moak explain how state statutes may not reflect the positive intent of these major Supreme Court cases.

  • Mallett, C. A. 2018. Disproportionate minority contact in juvenile justice: Today’s, and yesterdays, problems. Criminal Justice Studies 31.3: 230–248.

    DOI: 10.1080/1478601X.2018.1438276

    Mallet provides an overview of the juvenile justice eras from the 18th century to the present day. With a specific focus on the evolution of the juvenile court, its goals, and its impact on minority youth, this paper highlights the long-standing issues of disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system and the lack of effective federal, state, and local responses.

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