Development and Philosophy of the Juvenile Court

The juvenile justice system has been critiqued and criticized numerous times since its inception. Examining the works of Mack (1909), Platt (1969), Caldwell (1961), and Fox (1996) reveals that, although development of the court has taken various shapes and has often been rooted in differing ideals and guiding principles, the overall philosophical view of the purpose of the juvenile court has remained relatively unchanged and, surprisingly, was not unique or pioneered by the creation of the juvenile court. Over time, however, reforms have changed the juvenile court from the original concept of a hybrid between a court of law and a social agency charged with the protection and stewardship of juveniles to, for all intents and purposes, simply a court of law with additional flexibility in the sentencing of youthful offenders.

In order to best understand the path the development of the juvenile court has taken it is best to begin with the reasons for its creation. While there is some debate on the official origin of the juvenile court, it is widely accepted that its formation is credited to Chicago in 1899. According to Mack (1909) the court was formed as a result of society's general question of: “why is the state not bound by duty to protect and guard, and subsequently care for and guide, the children that reside within its borders when those children have committed an act in violation of the law or socially acceptable moral behavior?” This idea is expounded upon and reinforced by Platt's (1969) analysis of the rise of the “child-saving” movement, is reaffirmed yet again by Caldwell (1961) as he provides background on the development of the juvenile court and poses questions on how the system must change to effectively achieve the standards set forth by the United States Children's Bureau, and though Fox (1996) debates the origin of this perspective, the admission is present that the underlying theme played a crucial role in the development of the juvenile court. It can therefore be surmised that the development of a separate juvenile court was driven by a need for society to intervene in the lives of youthful offenders who, without the intervention of an authority, would either continue along a path of delinquency and criminality that posed further dangers to the safety and preservation of society or would be in danger due to the shortcomings of their parents or guardians.

The most concise presentation of the guiding principles for the development of the juvenile court were those set forth by Katherine Lenroot, who was then chief of the United States Children's Bureau (Caldwell, 1961). Those standards, in summary, stated that a juvenile court should have broad jurisdiction over persons under the age of eighteen, be presided over by a specially trained judge, maintain informal procedure and private hearings, keep detention at a minimum and preferably in private boarding homes, be comprised of a highly qualified probation staff, have resources for individual and specialized treatment at its disposal, be supervised by the state, and maintain an adequate record system safe-guarded against indiscriminate public viewing. Although Lenroot's guidelines were not presented until 1949, attempts were made in separating the adult and child correctional and rehabilitative institutions as early as 1824, when the New York legislature passed a law authorizing a House of Refuge for youth who were deemed reformable by the court (Fox, 1996). With the exception of maintaining informal procedure, these guidelines are just as important today as they were in 1949.

Among the chief concerns raised surrounding the juvenile court is the need for formalized procedures that maintain equitable and justifiable sanctions while retaining an informal setting. This concern was raised by Mack (1909) when he discusses the importance of the personality of the judge and their necessity to preserve the legal and natural rights of men and children, and was heavily examined, discussed, and expounded upon by Caldwell (1961) along with his analysis of what must change to provide structure within the juvenile court.

In stark contrast to the other authors referenced, Fox (1996) presents a scathing commentary on the failures of the juvenile court with regards to properly caring for youth through boarding homes and private programs versus simply incarcerating them with mere differences in terminology and aesthetics. In fact, Fox states that the only unique aspect of the juvenile court, and the one aspect that set it apart from other courts, was directly tied to the chief concern previously mentioned: the development of a personal and intimate rapport between the court, in this case the judge, and the youth referred to the court. This innovation has since faded, and the juvenile court has become, and later officially reinforced as, purely a court of law.

For the current incarnation of the juvenile court to maintain its goal of specialized, individualized justice, the return of forming a more intimate relationship between judge and offender must be a priority. Until such time as the court resumes a more parental role in the disposition of sentencing, the concerns presented above remain moot. However, if the juvenile court once again moves in such a direction, the aforementioned concerns must be taken into consideration in the development of formalized guidelines for the adjudication of delinquents in order to ensure fair and equitable treatment in all juvenile courts.


Caldwell, R.G. (1961). The Juvenile court: its development and some major problems. TheJournal of Criminal Law & Criminology 51: 493-511.

Fox, S. (1996). The early history of the court. The Future of Children 6: 29-39.

Mack, J. (1909). The juvenile court. Harvard Law Review 23: 104-122.

Platt, A. (1969). The rise of the child-saving movement: a study in social policy and correctionalreform. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 381:21-38.