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.

Trends in Juvenile Delinquency and Justice

Author's Note: I started graduate school, so a lot of my writing time is impeded by having to actually write for classes. Once my essays are complete and graded, I'll post them here so that you all at least have something to read if I do not get to write other pieces for fun for a little bit. Enjoy!

Public perception and concern over the emergence of a new breed of juvenile delinquent, namely the violent predator, fueled Snyder's analysis of the Maricopa County juvenile population in 1998. This study resulted in some very interesting findings, especially with regards to the effectiveness of the system and the types of offenses committed by youths. In addition, Snyder's findings help shed light on ways to reevaluate, and potentially improve, the policies and practices of the juvenile justice system.The Maricopa County study looked at the “graduating classes” of officially recognized juvenile delinquents from 1980 to 1995. These cohorts were identified by using the entire youth population that turned eighteen and aged out of the juvenile system in their respective years. In all, 151,209 youth were identified as officially recognized by the juvenile system during this timeframe, which accounted for a combined 325,259 referrals to the court. Three categories of offenses were used to identify each juvenile career type: nonserious nonviolent offenses, serious nonviolent offenses, and violent offenses.In order to best understand what Snyder's findings mean, it is important to note some of the key statistical data that provide the basis for interpreting the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system and the potential ways in which reevaluating policy and practice are affected. The average age at which a youth's first delinquent offense occurred remained fairly constant across all sixteen cohorts, and ranged between 15.2 and 15.8 years of age. The average number of referrals to the system increased from 1980 to 1995 by approximately 55%. It is important to note that this increase in referrals is greater than the increase in the size of the groups, which means that the 1995 cohort had more referrals per career than the 1980 cohort. Finally, a large majority of youth referred to the system, approximately 60% in fact, were referred only once.While the preceding data alone does not present a complete understanding of Snyder's findings, it does provide a baseline from which further analysis yields interesting insights. In examining the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system the rate of recidivism provides the most important data point. In addition to noting that the majority of youth were referred only once, only 1% of the population studied was referred more than once for violent offenses. This indicates that successful intervention by the system early in the career of an offending youth is absolutely critical in preventing further delinquent activities. Snyder also found that each referral to the system increased the likelihood of an offender being referred for a violent offense. This further emphasizes that early, successful intervention is crucial in lowering violent crime among the juvenile population, and provides a clear goal in reevaluating the practices and policies related to intervening in the careers of juvenile offenders as early as possible.As noted earlier, the number of referrals from 1980 to 1995 increased, with the proportion of chronic offenders averaging 13% in the eighties and 17% in the nineties. The records show that this increase was a result of more chronic offenders, not more active, serious, or violent offenders. This increase could be explained by the expanded reach of the juvenile justice system, as Snyder mentions, but could also indicate a growing trend of unsuccessful intervention the first time a youth is referred to the court. Since chronic offenders of any type (nonserious, serious, and violent) only made up 14.6% of the entire population studied, or 22,112 of the 151,209 cases studied, and the proportion of chronic offenders averaged 17% at its peak, the explanation that a larger number of juveniles involved in repeat referrals as a result of an expanded reach of the system makes the most sense.These points illustrate that rethinking intervention strategies in an effort to lower the number of referrals among juveniles should be an ongoing process. One flaw easily recognized in understanding the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system, however, is that no clear data is available on how many juveniles are not referred to the courts or who are referred directly to the adult justice system due to changes in policy and law. In order to best understand whether the juvenile justice system is actually largely meeting its goals as Snyder indicates, another study that tracks these same cohorts across the rest of their careers up to the present is necessary. In addition, analysis of intake records for the adult court system over the same time-frame should be studied to ensure additional juveniles were not overlooked in the original study.Overall, Snyder's findings indicate positive trends in juvenile justice and delinquency. Continued expansion of programs designed to intervene in the lives of at-risk juveniles, as well as expansion of programs designed to intervene at the point of first contact with the juvenile system, are cornerstones of an effective, proactive approach to lowering both initial referrals and repeat referrals to the courts. It is clear, however, that sufficient data on juvenile delinquency does not exist at present.Sources:Snyder, H.N. (1998). Serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders—an assessment of the extent of and trends in officially recognized serious criminal behavior in a delinquent population. In: Loeber, R., & Farrington, D. (Eds), Serious & violent juvenile offenders: risk factors and successful interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.